Narcissism and Leadership

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With the new administration in Washington, D.C., the issue of leadership styles has gotten a lot of attention. Barack Obama has been treated as a heroic figure, who lead an impeccable campaign. There are high expectations for his ideas of leadership in Washington. "Change," "Bipartisanship," and "No-Drama Obama" are catchwords every day in the press. He is compared to Lincoln and FDR. These leadership characteristics are used to show how different the all-good new president is from the all-bad "worst in history" President George W. Bush.
But just a few years ago, the press was filled with laudatory comments about Mr. Bush. He was seen as a "strong leader," "focused," and surprisingly able to stay "on-message." He was elected twice. Also, in the past few years, we have seen other successful leaders in high office end up in disgrace: Governor Blogojevich of Illinois, Governor Spitzer of New York, and Governor McGreevey of New Jersey. There have also been businesses with leaders who rose dramatically and then fell from grace dramatically: Enron, WorldCom, etc. And then, of course, there are the leaders of the banking industry and auto industry whose personal greed and personal deficits are now exposed for all to see.

What distinguishes truly successful leaders from those who dramatically rise and fall? I believe that it's the degree of narcissism in their personalities. Narcissism is seen as basically a negative trait: self-centered, insensitive, a drive to be seen as a superior person, a hero, etc. Yet a modest amount of narcissism helps a leader withstand criticism and push forward with an unpopular idea - an idea which may become the latest invention or medical breakthrough or economic solution or peace treaty that saves millions of lives. It takes a strong personality to overcome many barriers, whether personal, financial, physical, etc.
So what's the difference between "healthy narcissism" and unhealthy narcissism - also known as "pathological narcissism" or Narcissistic Personality Disorder? When it becomes a disorder, they have the following basic characteristics:
They can't handle any negative feedback, even important and useful feedback.
They disrespect and alienate those around them and have no real friends.

They lack empathy and are oblivious to the pain and suffering of others.
They are so absorbed in their sense of superiority that they can't see their downfall coming.
In short, they lack social awareness and can't stop themselves.
So why do they get as far as they do? The flip side of these negative characteristics is a predictable set of characteristics that make them attractive as leaders:
Great charm and intense emotional enthusiasm for their cause.
An ability to hook into other peoples' fantasies of success and power.
An ability to speak in appealing terms and simple phrases.
A keen sensitivity to what impresses other people.
An incredible and contagious sense of confidence; you feel really good around them.
In other words, the very characteristics that can lead to disaster truly lead us toward narcissists. It appears to be part of our human nature to follow leaders based on personality characteristics alone. This makes sense, when you figure that humans have gotten together in groups for thousands of years to accomplish great things well before we had the reading and writing skills that we have today.
A narcissistic leader will emotionally inspire us to work hard together for a group "cause," even though that leader may be a complete idiot. It takes a while to find out which leaders are effective in which times, and which ones are extremely off base. The time it takes to figure this all out is much longer than the time it takes to appeal to us emotionally. Therefore, it appears that humans have a short-cut for getting organized - especially in a crisis: Just follow the most attractive leader; namely one who sounds good, who looks strong, and who has lots of confidence. But in modern times of complex crises, this can lead us astray.
So, let's return to the question I asked at the beginning of this short article: How can you distinguish the Obama's from the Bushes, or the Blogojevichs, or the Ken Lays of Enron, or the Madoffs of Wall Street? They all have (had) charisma, confidence and lots of followers who absolutely believed in them. Those personality characteristics will only got them so far. The difference is whether leaders have the openness to listen and willingness to learn about what really works in their present environment - and to keep on learning. This takes a dose of humility, self-reflection, and the ability to stop themselves when necessary.
So when you vote for a politician, or hire an employee, or choose a neighbor or a date: don't ask yourself if they are charming or make you feel good. Ask yourself if they listened and thought about what you said. Look for examples of when they learned from making a mistake (you can even ask them that question). Ask what their self-doubts are. Charm can interfere with your objective observations and even your negative gut feelings.
Beware! Never stop paying attention and thinking. That's what pathological narcissists do. It's not surprising that what offends us most about them is that they are rude, uncaring, and "thoughtless people." I think that's the key difference between healthy narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: thoughtfulness.
Hmm! I'll have to think about that!

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations regarding High Conflict People (HCPs) to professionals dealing with legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author of "It's All Your Fault!" He is an attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, or Bill Eddy and his books go to: or call 602-606-7628. Be sure to check out "It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything", and "High Conflict People in Legal Disputes".
Bill Eddy is President and co-founder of High Conflict Institute. Based on his work as an attorney, mediator and therapist, he developed the "High Conflict Personality" theory and has become an international expert on high conflict personalities. He is the author of several books written for professionals handling high conflict disputes and has provided training on this topic to thousands of professionals across the U.S., Canada, Australia and France.

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Bill Eddy is President and co-founder of High Conflict Institute. Based on his work as an attorney, mediator and therapist, he developed the "High Conflict Personality" theory and has become an international expert on high conflict personalities. He is the creator of New Ways for Families™, a cutting edge program for divorcing families.

Bill's published books include “It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything”, and “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes”. Visit our website to purchase these and other media products.

For a complete biography on Bill, go to

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