Show mercy for narcissistic leaders and learn how to deal with them

by Didier Marlier on Saturday March 28th, 2015

By coincidence or synchronicity, I have been confronted recently to these complaints from some of our clients:

  • “I was misled. I was hired for this job, on the basis of rocking the boat and shaking the hierarchy. But when I do I get punished.”
  • “The Board started this whole process of business rejuvenation but when our team came with strong recommendations, they were all rejected!”
  • They talk about entrepreneurship and risk taking but they are so conservative and scared of taking any risks…”
  • They talk about being innovative but are so punishing with failures…”
  • “I finally became a partner here just to find out that “seniority still meant superiority” and it is even worse at this level”
  • “I became a board member but the rites clearly demonstrate that some are more equal than others”…

These were among the complaints that I helped people deal with. My normal, in-built rebelliousness would, in the past, have demanded a huge effort for me not to collude with the “victims”, moved by a wonderful and constructive energy to shake their leaders and the crust of dust in their organizations.

But… getting older (and sadly not wiser) something happened in me: I suddenly felt what it was like, to be standing on the other side of the fence, having built an organization one identifies with and feeling that other people were questioning its foundations…

When I started to listen to the description of “the CEO”, of the “other partners” or “fellow Board members”, an image started to emerge and I felt empathy and sympathy for people I would otherwise have suspected of being directive, maybe dictatorial and moved by a defensive ego rather than a purposeful vision…

The descriptions given by the “unfortunate rebels” coincided on several points:

  • They had been lured to a new position, on the promise that profound changes were needed in their organization and that the top leaders were counting on them. Moved by a wonderful “Don Quixotean” courage, they had stood up and accepted to volunteer.
  • But, after a more or less short “honeymoon”, when they came forward with well crafted, intellectually impeccable and courageous recommendations for change, they were turned down and, if persisting, received “subtle” threats against their future in the company.
  • Their respectful description of their leaders, were containing elements suggesting strong and narcissistic egos in those.

My heart was bleeding for those “rebels with a cause” as it seemed that they were recounting me the story of my own life, having been hired in several positions to bring in new blood, insufflate fresh air and having rapidly got myself into trouble with the narcissistic dinosaurs who were leading the place.

But I also felt emerging an unknown feeling of empathy and sadness for the “dinosaurs”:

  • On the one hand, those leaders knew that radical and courageous shake-up was needed in their business. It is them who had expressed that visionary desire and gone through the effort of spotting intelligent (knowing that those people were sometimes even more intelligent and capable than themselves) and younger talents. It is them whom had identified the weak spots of their strategies and encouraged those skilled rebels to take them on. Indeed they had requested for everything to be challenged and even reassured those hesitant heroes that any personal feedback they had for them would be welcome. So rationally and intellectually, they were fully on board for the radical revamp they had themselves called-in…
  • But… were they emotionally ready for it? Were they prepared to see their child undergo such an in depth surgery? Were they truly willing to let go of the final control? Were they really keen to get serious feedback questioning behaviours so deeply ingrained that they seemed to have become a part of their personality and uniqueness?
  • When asked to work with some of those leaders (in the case that the crisis had become so violent), I could read through the lines anxious existential questions such as:
    • Will I still be needed and relevant? This organization has become part of me, part of my raison d’être. What if I become not needed, if I become irrelevant?
    • Will my knowledge and competences still be requested and valued? I am “Mr this company”… My social circle, my reputation, my ego are all built on that position… If you remove the fuzz made around my unique talent and skills, people won’t recognize me anymore…
    • This company is a bit of my child, I made it up. These people are my children as well. Will I become a “childless father” if I let go? What legacy will I leave behind?

A different image started to emerge… more human. An article of 2004 from Michael Maccoby (an anthropologist and psychoanalyst), on narcissistic leaders came to my mind. Maccoby wrote that “productive narcissistic leaders” have several strengths, amongst which a great vision and a capacity to attract scores of followers. But their weaknesses when they become “unproductive” are:

  • Sensitivity to criticism: I started to better understand the mismatch between the intellectual intent of those leaders (shake their companies up) and the emotional blockages that they had when confronted to feedback. This was seen as a criticism of their leadership. They need affection and recognition, not criticism.
  • Poor listeners: As a consequence, when criticism is so painful to hear, narcissistic leaders will stop listening. Trying to speak to their rationale, their intellect is a waste of time. Pacifying their emotions is what will help them listen to you.
  • Lack of empathy: Narcissistic leaders are a living paradox: on the one hand they are charismatic and seductive, on the other, they can be so harsh. They need admiration, not love…
  • Distaste for mentoring: because they will be naturally suspicious and dislike intensely being manipulated, they will tend to look down at mentoring. They are extremely independent and homeopathic doses of helpful remarks from a trusted colleague will help them progress more than any coach.

I once received a feedback that I had not understood at the time from a CEO I profoundly respect (and love but he’d rather die than hear this), when I had given him a tough and I thought well-crafted feedback at his request: “You didn’t understand my request. I needed support not criticism…” It is indeed very lonely at the top. And those people will rarely admit it: They need support not criticism!

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2 Responses to “Show mercy for narcissistic leaders and learn how to deal with them”

  1. Hi Didier,
    This is EXACTLY what I am experiencing with one of my bosses. He is really giving a hard time and my life within the company is becoming more and more difficult.
    Regards xxxx

    • Dear xx (I hid your name on purpose),
      I am sorry to read that and hope that the message here has been helpful. Stop seeing that person just as a boss but understand how they function… You may be able to help them and you out of the difficult relationship you are having


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