In ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome youth who rejected the advances of a nymph only to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He spent hours gazing enraptured into the pool and eventually changed into the flower that bears his name today, the narcissus.
If only the tale of young Narcissus had ended with a lesson to be learned about the dangers of excessive selfishness. Unfortunately there have been many persons, including leaders, that have succumbed to the behaviors associated with narcissists. While a certain amount of self-love is necessary for healthy psychological development, the traits found in narcissists move far beyond any balanced view of life.
Narcissists tend to focus mostly on themselves in interpersonal exchanges, they have difficulty being empathetic, display haughty body language, exaggerate their own achievements, detest those who don’t admire them, and use other people without considering the cost. These behaviors, when found in leaders, create a challenging workplace environment.
Co-workers and direct reports will find it difficult to negotiate or reason with a narcissistic leader. They will often find themselves blamed for what is going wrong and may rarely, if ever, receive credit for any successes. If the leader feels threatened by someone else’s ability, he or she may attack that person’s character, showing contempt for them. These same leaders may be quick to exploit others for their own personal agenda.
In extreme cases, narcissistic leaders can create a corporate environment that is dominated by the need for profit. With a short-term goal of maximizing the bottom line, it is easy for these leaders to infuse the company with a “less than human” slash and burn approach. Employees and customers both lose when these tactics are employed.
You won’t find a modern-day narcissistic corporate or political leader infatuated by their reflection in a mirror. Instead you will encounter someone who is simply unwilling to face who they really are. And that seems much more dangerous to me.