How to Survive Working for a Narcissistic Leader

Last Updated May 19, 2011 12:27 PM EDT

Times of great change require leaders who have immense vision, courage and the capacity to ignore what everyone else is doing. Many would put BP's John Browne and the now-imprisoned former IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn in this same category.

You don't necessarily like these people, but they can lead you to great success and may be the only leaders capable of delivering true, galvanic change. Being part of their ride can be exhilarating, instructive, inspiring and lucrative. But they aren't easy people to work with - and they have very distinct and important drawbacks.

What is a narcissist?
Psychoanalysts describe narcissistic personalities as independent, innovative, drawn to power and glory. They rarely suffer from doubt or second thoughts and can come across as very aggressive. Their extreme absorption in their own vision blinds them to risks, problems or nuance. Being part of their ride can be exhilarating, instructive, inspiring and lucrative. But hanging on for that ride is emotionally and professionally taxing.

If their vision is wrong, they'll lead everyone over the cliff and never notice. The other problem is that, while their inter-personal skills are poor, they will take all dissent personally. They may not be sensitive to others - but any slight or criticism is felt very personally indeed.

Here are some tips learned on the roller coaster:

1. Play to the upside.
Narcissists are sometimes great leaders because they have vision and are sufficiently self-absorbed not to care (or even notice) how mad they may appear to others. There's little value in trying to change this. If you want radical change, it won't be delivered by sensitive leaders but by those so caught up in their own vision that they can't see anything else. You will have to learn not to mind their faults. But don't become impervious to them - you need to retain your ability to distinguish their greatness from their potential madness.

2. Don't even think of competing.

No ego can match, never mind annihilate, the ego of the narcissist. What you have to decide is whether their achievement will facilitate your success. If it will, that's fine. If these two are at odds, get out now.

3. Help them privately.
While narcissists may think they know everything, the smart ones know they need help. But they won't show this - or want it demonstrated - in public. So find a back channel: private time alone, email, phone calls. Smart narcissists will absorb all your great insight, data and advice and effortlessly fold it into their own thinking. Don't expect acknowledgement, gratitude or thanks - but don't abdicate either. Many narcissists are smart and they need your insights, even if they'll never acknowledge that.

4. Decide how to deal with the bullying.
Most narcissists are also bullies, subject to tremendous rage. There are 2 ways to manage this: ignore it, like water off a duck's back (if you truly can) or stand up to it early. Your refusal to be insulted or abused will carry weight because there is nothing a narcissist hates more than losing an audience.

5. Accept that narcissists have no desire to change.
Even if they're wreaking havoc, they won't care. They know they're right. If you think you can change them, you're wrong, will waste time - and endure a lot of abuse along the way.

The tragedy of narcissists, of course, is that having defeated a mighty foe or delivered epic change, they are the very last people to enjoy the fruits of their labor. If you let them, they'll destroy what they've built. So the critical question, when dealing with narcissistic leaders is this: Are we in a situation that needs this level of drive, radical intensity and vision? If you are, it could be that only a narcissist will get you there.

Further Reading:
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

Comments