Narcissistic Leadership

August 29, 2023

The pandemic has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many people in charge know what they’re doing” according to Barack Obama. Why’s that? Psychoanalysis would split our leaders into two camps– the narcissistic and the empathetic. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to work out which is which.

Trump, Boris and Hancock have been lining up with narcissism on their backs. While Jacinda, Angela and Nicola have been leading on empathy. New York state governor Andrew Cuomo is the only man being mentioned in the same breath as the leading women. It feels like the empathetic may be doing better. But history and inquiries will deliver a more informed verdict on that.

Freud was one of the first to dig deep into the traits of the narcissistic leader. History tells us they are often to the fore in times of war and crisis. Their good side is that they can inspire people to change the shape of the future. They often do this through the power and emotion of their rhetoric. They are visionaries who feel unconstrained about throwing out big ideas – like the suggestion of 200,000 tests or 100,000 tests or the curing power of drinking bleach.

But there is a significant dark side to the narcissistic leader, which can be seen clearly in the Covid crisis. They are never good listeners; ignore advice; lack empathy; and can become strangers to the truth. They often over-estimate their own ability. The line between narcissists and fantasists is a thin one. Consider the idea that a “protective ring” has been thrown around our care homes. Challenge to a narcissistic leader can spark anger and they can slip into paranoia when under pressure. They will very rarely admit they would benefit from personal help. Few will enlist a coach or mentor.

So, why does it feel like the empathetic leaders may have done better? One senior female executive told me, “The female leaders don’t just think of the issue. They think of the impact at all levels on society as a whole. They have been able to place themselves alongside the suffering citizens in a way that has eluded the narcissistic men. They’ve done that through both their tone and their actions.”

In New York, Cuomo’s popularity has been helped by the stark contrast between him and Trump. His news conferences are fact filled and to the point. One resident of the Big Apple told me last week, “Cuomo has been great. He is such a counterpoint to what is coming out of The White House. He’s just a straight-talking New Yorker.”

Narcissistic leaders in business have been plentiful down through the years. Boards are increasingly aware of the dangers of the dark side of their personalities. They know they need tempered through the checks and balances of corporate governance and nurtured through mentoring and coaching. The problem in the Covid-19 crisis is no one is coaching Trump, Boris or Hancock. Even if they were, would these political narcissists listen?

Atholl Duncan is Chair of the leadership development business, Black Isle Group.
Published in City AM newspaper in May 2020

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