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Narcissism trumps leadership

I have written about how a leader’s character needs to anchor in humility, and I would like to continue that conversation by looking at the opposite trait, narcissism.

By narcissism, I mean consistent and extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s talents and a craving for admiration. Narcissism is not what we have traditionally regarded as mature, adult behavior. Clinical psychologists use the word to refer to a complex and difficult-to-treat personality disorder, and according to recent research, narcissism is experiencing an unprecedented increase in America.

Anyone observing the current US presidential campaign can see how narcissism trumps––pun intended––humility at every level. I am not speaking from a political position; I am talking about the requisite character values of real leadership, precisely the issue of narcissism versus humility.

By definition, politicians are not suited to an objective analysis of leadership because being political and “politically correct” means promoting their self-interested ways, rather than being selfless and acting on principle. Politics is bloated with narcissism, and Donald Trump, the world’s most observable person in a position of authority, epitomizes this reality. A November 11, 2015, article in Vanity Fair quoted developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, saying about Trump, “Remarkably narcissistic.” Clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis used another phrase, “Textbook narcissistic personality disorder.”

Unfortunately, what we saw in the 2016 campaign, and daily to the present time, is more than political narcissism; it reflects the narcissism embedded in our culture, which has far-reaching effects beyond politics. 

Trump, as a one-person, political reality show, is cause and effect. He is a caricature––an unfortunate manifestation of narcissistic personality disorder, a product of a contemporary reality show culture, and distorting influence on leadership, everywhere. 

We are watching blatant narcissism trump genuine leadership in a media carnival extravaganza that scorches the landscape, blustering to all who will listen: “Vote for me … This is leadership, this is how you win … values, honesty, integrity not required; principles, wisdom, humanism a disadvantage.” It is a denigration of the meaning, definition, and character of leadership, not just in politics but in all walks of life. And since the behavior and values for holding positions of high authority are learned primarily through emulation, the distorting influence on “leadership” is perverse.

Most of today’s business leaders are a product of Western culture, and a business organization’s culture is a direct reflection of its leadership, always. Not everyone is a Donald Trump, but narcissism is pervasive, and the “big-me” is aspired to, from CEO celebrity to unwarranted pay levels. And that’s a problem.

On February 13, 2016, in a New York Times article, Arthur C. Brooks cited a 2010 study by the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science: “the percentage of college students exhibiting narcissistic personality traits, based on their scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory … has increased by more than half since the early 1980s, to 30 percent.” That’s almost a third of our aspiring leaders. Brooks also referred to the book, Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, in which psychology professors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell show that “narcissism has increased as quickly as obesity since the 1980s.” Brooks added, “Even our egos are getting fat.”

I see the problem as more massive than so-called “leaders” with bloated egos because it doesn’t stop there; it gets perpetuated through emulation. Humans emulate other human behavior, especially that of leaders, and when narcissism is emulated, it emasculates the fundamental character we need in leaders. A growing 30% of narcissistic students is a harbinger of future leadership. I believe narcissism and emulation create a toxic, cultural malady that has undermined leadership and organizational culture from the inside out.

Brooks points out, “While full-blown narcissists often report high levels of personal satisfaction, they create havoc and misery around them. There is overwhelming evidence linking narcissism with lower honesty and raised aggression.” And Twenge and Campbell, in their book, state, “There is extensive scientific research on the truth about narcissists. Narcissism is not simply a confident attitude or a healthy feeling of self-worth, narcissists are overconfident … unlike most people high in self-esteem, (they) place little value on emotionally close relationships.”

The authors say, “Every day, you encounter the real costs of narcissism … in the workplace and the economy at large … even the world economy has been damaged….” Their research shows what they call “the pernicious spread of narcissism in today’s culture and its catastrophic effects”––and how it is increasing alarmingly. 

Add what Gallup research tells us about employee disengagement’s insupportable levels: 70% in the US, 87% globally. It predicts a “perfect storm” for leadership today.

Narcissism is the antithesis of collaboration. Without a leader’s profoundly personal commitment to––and organizational focus on––employee engagement, there is little hope of improving human performance, let alone humbly advancing leadership. The solution starts at the top of the organization with a very high standard of character for leaders.