6 signs that you are a narcissistic leader

Currently, I sit 7275 miles from the epicenter of the chaos in the U.S.

As an American living abroad, a CEO of a Leader Experience company, a minority in a foreign country, and moving back to America in 12-days, the lens I look through is different than most. Not unique, just a difference in color. This blog is not about racism, as the title suggests. I am humble enough to know that I am a white middle-aged male who knows nothing about any minority's journey in America. I prefer to shut-up, listen, and learn from those that have had the experience, not those that pretend to understand the experience.

What this blog does focus on are those that have an opportunity, neigh I say the responsibility, to lead, but seem to fail due to their own peccadillos. In the book, The Crucible's Gift, there is a section that discusses the six signs your leader is a narcissist, it is called, The Fallacy of Charm Effect. These leaders, tend to climb organizations, but leave a trail of carnage for others to pick up.

Dr. Michael Maccoby, president of The Maccoby Group in Washington, D.C. is a frequent Harvard Business Review contributor and often writes on narcissism and leadership. In an HBR article published in 2000, Maccoby describes what I call the “fallacy of charm” effect. The fallacy of charm effect occurs when a person leads by false pretenses and uses their natural charisma to manipulate those around them to achieve a goal that results in a less desirable outcome. Here is how Maccoby describes these leaders:

Despite the warm feelings that charisma can evoke, narcissists are typically not comfortable with their own emotions. They listen only for the kind of information they seek. They don’t learn easily from others. They don’t like to teach but prefer to indoctrinate and make speeches. They dominate meetings with subordinates. The result for the organization is greater internal competitiveness at a time when everyone is already under as much pressure as they can possibly stand. Perhaps the main problem is that the narcissist’s faults tend to become even more pronounced as he becomes more successful.

Maccoby lists several overarching attributes of a leader who uses charisma and narcissism for evil. As you read through the following list see if you can think of someone who has some of these attributes:

• is sensitive to criticism

• is a poor listener

• is lacking in empathy

• has a distaste for mentoring

• has an intense desire to compete (this is negative when there is collateral damage).

• is more interested in controlling others than through the use of discipline itself

These characteristics suggest that some “leaders” are less interested in people and more interested in themselves and in potentially manipulating an environment. The consequences of any one of these traits could be detrimental to an organization, but when you stack one trait on top of the other, the results are cataclysmic.

Nowadays, it feels like you could throw a rock and hit a leader that exudes these traits. If you work for a leader who is like this, RUN! If you are a leader like this, ask yourself, “How do I want to be remembered when I am dead?” If it is an a**hole, keeping being you. However, my guess is that If you are a leader who exudes these traits, you will probably answer by exclaiming your greatness.

The world is crying out for antithesis of narcissistic leadership. The world is begging for a reimagination of what is leadership. And the world needs to develop future leaders who embrace the 'for other-with others' matra.

Be safe, be kind, and be the change you want.

James Kelley,

CEO of qChange


Michael Maccoby, “Narcissistic leaders: The incredible pros, the inevitable cons,” Harvard Business Review 78, no. 1 (2000): 68–78.