What happens when a narcissist is in charge?

No matter whether your organisation is a nonprofit or not, everyone needs to beware the narcissist in the workplace. Here Petris Lapis outlines what to watch out for when employing or working with these charismatic people.


narcissistHave you ever promoted or hired someone who had a fabulous ‘sales pitch’ and then watched everything unravel in front of your eyes? You may have unwittingly come across an unproductive narcissist and paid the consequences. It is a little like being at a formal dinner, taking a big bite of the fabulous looking dessert and finding it is hideous. There is nothing you can do but grin and swallow because everyone is watching.

How do you know you have a narcissist in your workplace?

According to Freud there are three main personality types – erotics, obsessives and narcissists – and most of us have elements of all three. The narcissist is independent, driven to gain power and glory and want to be admired, but not loved. They are emotionally isolated, highly distrustful, poor listeners, lacking in empathy and aggressive and paranoid about enemies. Narcissists have a magnificent opinion of themselves and a strong sense of entitlement.

According to Dr Ross King from Deakin University, Vic, one clue to spotting them is they don’t generally pitch in and help out with the little things that keep an office running.[i] Dr King says that because they seek admiration, fame, wealth and success, they are generally attracted to business, law, politics and media.

When a narcissist shines

Narcissists are eloquent creative strategists with inspiring visions, the ability to attract others and who enjoy risk and love change. In the words of Michael Maccoby[ii], “Narcissists do not attempt to understand the future, they attempt to create it.” As a result they can be transformation leaders like Apple’s deceased CEO Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

When the shine wears off

Having a narcissist in a position of power long term can be like putting your hand on a hotplate and turning the stove on. The longer it goes, the worse the burn gets.

Narcissists can lack self-knowledge and restraint. They believe the magnificent schemes in their heads and become self-involved, unpredictable and paranoid, which is why an executive at Oracle described his narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison this way: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.” Unfortunately, the more confident they feel, the more pronounced their faults become and they start to believe they are invincible and refuse to listen or be cautious.

Their emotional isolation and distrust makes them highly sensitive to criticism so they do not tolerate people disagreeing with them and can fly into rage if faced with it. Steve Jobs, for example, used to publicly humiliate subordinates. As a result, narcissists don’t rate well on evaluations of their interpersonal style, but it isn’t a problem for them as they don’t want to change and don’t believe they have to.

What happens next

Narcissists end up in positions of power because they know how to be noticed and they have a ‘grand story’. In times of stress and change, human nature also makes us want the ‘bigger than life superhero’ to lead us to safety.

Margarita Mayo[iii] found that the more stressed or anxious we are, the more we seek charisma in our leaders as a solution. The unfortunate paradox to our behaviour is that we choose to support the very leaders who are less likely to bring us success and will possibly plunge us into greater danger in the longer term. When we choose leaders and managers based on charisma, we tend to pay the price.

Humble, unassuming leaders make the world and our workplaces a better place. They improve the performance of an organisation through more collaborative environments, a balanced view of themselves and others, and being open to new ideas and feedback and also to improve the bottom line.[iv] One researcher found that companies with leaders who had integrity, compassion, forgiveness sand accountability made five times larger returns on assets than companies whose leaders were more self-centred.[v]  

On the other hand, while narcissists may look like good leaders, according to researchers from the University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at leading.[vi] The researchers found that narcissism inhibits information exchange between group members, negatively affects group performance, company morale declines and employees leave the company. [vii] Their sheer magnetism transforms their environments into a competition which makes workers more self-centred, often at a time when they need to be working together.[viii]

Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic[ix] and Dr Ross King from Deakin University both argue that narcissists demoralise employees and devalue stock and that narcissism has been shown to have links with fraud.

What is the answer?

If we want to solve the problem of narcissistic leaders and the toxic workplaces they create, it seems we might need to do the following things:

1 Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University business professor[x] argues it is time to change how we recruit as “the qualities we select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees, or for that matter, long-term organisational performance.” We need to look for red flags when we hire people. Be wary of the person who claims to have been the sole reason for change or success in a previous workplace. Pay attention when you notice someone failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others.

2 Identify narcissists earlier in their careers and be very cautious of the positions of power we put them in. One leadership consultant I have worked with believes narcissists are so toxic, that he undertakes personality testing prior to leadership workshops to weed them out.

3 Stop glorifying narcissistic people and leaders in the media as some form of superhero and start focusing on humility and quiet confidence as positive traits in our leaders and our society.

Petris Lapis
Petris is Director of Petris Lapis, a provider of soft skills and mindfulness training.


[i] abc.net.au/news/health/2017-07-05/how-to-spot-and-deal-with-the-office-narcissist/8677200

[ii] Harvard Business Review – Organisational Culture – Michael Maccoby – Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, The Inevitable Cons – Jan 2004

[iii] Harvard business Review - Leadership – If Humble People Make the Best Leaders Why Do We Fall For Charismatic Narcissists? – Margarito May- April 7, 2017

[iv] Harvard business Review - Leadership – If Humble People Make the Best Leaders Why Do We Fall For Charismatic Narcissists? – Margarito May- April 7, 2017

[v] Fred Kiel, author of the book Return of Character

[vi] psychologicalscience.org/index/php/publications/journals/psychological_science

[vii] gsb.standord.eduinsgiths/charles-oreilly-narcissists-get-paid-more-you-do

[viii] Harvard Business Review – Leadership – If Humble People Make The Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall For Charismatic Narcissists? – Margarita Mayo – 7 April 2017

[ix] hbr.org/2014/01/why-we-love-narcissists

[x] In his book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces And Careers One Truth At A Time