The Mantra of Toxic Leadership
“You’re in my world now”.
Five simple but emotionally charged words that were fired at me by a senior colleague I worked with many years ago, during a debate on some point I can’t now remember. The words sent a chill down my spine and for good reason, as time would reveal, since this was to prove my first glimpse into the inner workings of a highly narcissistic mind.
We are told that the opposite of success is not failure, but failure to act. I can buy this. Likewise, I believe the opposite of positive leadership is not negative leadership per se, although this runs a close second; it is actually narcissistic leadership. Why? Because even with negative leadership it is still essentially all about the team, just with unhelpful tactics thrown in the mix. With a highly narcissistic person at the helm it is all about the leader themselves, and only them; the team are simply pawns in the narcissist’s game.
So what’s the issue with a narcissistic leadership style?
Firstly, narcissistic leaders create a toxic culture that is literally a ‘cult of personality’ that pays scant attention to the needs or well being of other team members. Narcissistic leaders are also unlikely to solicit or accept any critical feedback on their chosen course or direction, which can spell disaster if they get it wrong. Finally, and most importantly, narcissistic leaders can cause real damage to the mental and physical health of people whom they target, which will typically be anyone who challenges them, positively or otherwise, or in any way makes them feel threatened. Paradoxically, the individuals targeted for such abuse are oftentimes the very ones who, through their experience or talents, are best placed to offer positive and constructive support; but the narcissistic leader wants none of this.
Broken careers, failed health, long periods of sick leave, nervous breakdown, complex stress disorders and, in extreme cases, even worse. Often these people will have had no real idea what was happening to them until it was too late, leaving them reeling from extreme behaviors that they could not have hoped to understand, let alone reconcile or begin to manage.
So, what is narcissism and how do extreme narcissistic leaders behave?
Just like most psychological traits, narcissism exists on a continuum and we all have an element of it in our make-up; this ‘healthy narcissism’ helps to protect us and ensure our personal needs are met. In fact, narcissism is a natural stage of human development that all infants pass through – speak to anyone with a two-year-old child for confirmation!
However, adults with extreme narcissistic traits have very low self-esteem and a shaky sense of self, which causes them to invent a ‘perfect’ false self as a defense mechanism. Their entire existence is then geared towards maintaining the ‘image’ of this false self. In this pursuit they will bully, lie and cheat without remorse. Any perceived challenge will be met with ‘narcissistic rage’, an explosive anger designed to protect their fragile ego from damage. Other people are used as ‘narcissistic supply’ to validate the narcissist’s false self, and then discarded when they no longer serve this purpose.
In the workplace, all of this can be disastrous. A leader with extreme narcissistic traits will show little empathy for others. They will exhibit a strong sense of entitlement to whatever special treatment they feel they deserve. They will say and do whatever gets them to their desired goal, whether it be true or false, right or wrong, fair or unfair. They will use any, and every, tactic of manipulation to ensure they exert total control over their environment.
So how do you spot an extreme narcissist before it’s too late?
When you know what to look for it’s actually quite easy. There are formal diagnostic criteria that define extreme narcissism which you can find through a simple Google search, but it’s probably more valuable here to focus on some practical pointers to the typical behaviors you might witness. Here’s my watch list of the extreme narcissist’s mantras:
#1: I’m right, you’re wrong. Extreme narcissists have to be right, always. Their very sense of self depends on this being the case. They are never wrong.
#2: I win, you lose. Extreme narcissists have to win at all costs. But this isn’t enough. They also have to prove that you lost, hands down.
#3: Challenge me and I’ll destroy you. Extreme narcissists cannot accept any form of challenge, whether real or perceived, to their authority, ideas or goals. They will rage against anyone who dares to do this, irrespective of that person’s motives or the merits of their arguments.
#4: The truth is whatever I say it is. Extreme narcissists will say whatever they need to in order to reach or precipitate a particular outcome they wish to achieve. Aside from direct lies, they will re-write history if it suits their purposes.
#5: You are there to serve my needs. Extreme narcissists have a strong sense of being special and entitled to commensurate treatment. They will not care if their actions cause additional work, inconvenience or problems for you.
#6: The rules don’t apply to me. Extreme narcissists will not be held accountable for their actions under any circumstances. Rules are for other people and they play by their own personal and private set at all times; these will change to suit the circumstances.
#7: You are required to adore me. Extreme narcissists crave adoration. This is what keeps their fragile sense of self intact. If you don’t deliver this adoration on cue, you are liable to be treated as an enemy.
#8: It’s dog eat dog. Extreme narcissists believe that everyone thinks the same way they do and is ‘working an angle’ to gain an advantage. Hence, it’s fine for them to behave the way they do. Ironically, this cynical world view often precipitates the very behaviours in others that they imagine are there in the first place, creating a negative, self-fulfilling prophecy.
#9: I’ll decide what you get to know. Extreme narcissists use information as a tool to control others. By ensuring they are the only one with the full picture they are able to manipulate situations to their advantage, play people off against each other and remove the likelihood of others questioning them. Lack of transparency is the hallmark.
There are other mantras for sure, but you get the picture.
Armed with the above insights, if you do find yourself working with someone for whom these behaviours ring true, and you’re in the firing line, you have two clear options. You can unconditionally accept the behaviours and take whatever comes your way, which is of course incredibly hard to do over an extended period. Or, you can pack your things and slip away, drawing comfort from the fact that you recognised the warning signs and had the good sense to remove yourself from harms way.
The reason is because, for the extreme narcissist, it will be a fight to the bitter end and they will win; they have to win in order to protect their very sense of being. It is a fight you simply cannot win and one you will be ill-equipped to pursue. They, on the other hand, will almost certainly have been fighting, and winning, such battles most of their life. It just will not be worth the toll on your well being.
The golden learning point
Over my career, I’ve encountered a handful of extreme narcissists. In most cases they have been very capable people, but without exception they have left a trail of human carnage in their wake. As I have researched what makes these people tick, the critical learning point for me has been quite unexpected and, in many ways, counter-intuitive.
Extreme narcissists are essentially ‘messengers’ who can shine a torch into your soul and ensnare you by the lure of a promise to meet your deepest needs. Once you actually hear that message and understand this lure, you will be equipped to chart a new course for yourself that is hugely more positive than any the extreme narcissist could ever put in front of you.