[January 21, 2016] In Greek mythology, a young and handsome Narcissus sees his reflection in a pool of water on day while walking near a lake. He became entranced by the reflection of himself but since he could not obtain the object of his desire (his own reflection); he died at the banks of the water pool. And such it is with so many leaders today who are enamored with an “idealized” version of themselves. Leaders today; are we narcissists?
“Hate is the complement of fear and narcissists like being feared. It imbues them with an intoxicating sensation of omnipotence.” – Sam Vaknin, Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited
I will argue that “yes,” too many leaders are narcissists and that this leader trend is destructive and debilitating to an organization. The truly deep narcissist is in possession of a self-righteous arrogance, dreams of intellectual brilliance, or superior moral standing. Yet, putting aside for the moment the outward traits of a narcissist – argumentative, vain, fretful, etc. – it is critical to note that they are completely unaware of their personal faults and are in self-love with their fake but perfect self.
Today, many leaders are not only narcissists, although perhaps not in the clinical psychosis in the extreme, but what is worse is that we are encouraging narcissism in our junior leaders. Witness the trouble our young officers have brought upon themselves while attending the most prestigious military academies in the United States or the shame of their behavior while enriching themselves at the expense of their troops. True, these are in the minority of officers but many senior leaders believe that their numbers are increasing.
Can an organization, a team, a group, or even a society continue to exist without major fissures when so many of its promising young people drift toward narcissistic behaviors? Unlikely, and this is why the U.S. Army and other military services have addressed the problem directly by introducing new programs to steer the most promising future leaders away from such faulty behavior. The militaries have also pushed hard on mentoring programs that specifically address the failures of narcissism and associated toxic workplace environments.
The lesson for leaders is to have a keen awareness of the telltale signs of a narcissistic personality, to quickly identify it, and take concrete steps to stop it. While the U.S. military has taken steps to overcome the problem of narcissistic leaders, there are no known private-sector organizations addressing the issue short of employee termination. Sadly, this is often too late to prevent damage to the organization’s ability to function well.
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