Although Maslow did not talk about narcissism in his paper on human motivation, it surely is an intrinsic part of the self-esteem needs. This is a motivational trait based on the pathological development of an individual. It is dependent on the unfulfilled need of the individual for praise or approval in its childhood and is manifested in adulthood as a hunger for power & prestige (Kohut, 1971). Narcissistic needs are known to have propelled many a manager to top leadership positions (Kernberg, 1979) as the accoutrements of a top management position offer the highest possibility to a narcissist in an organisation to gratify his or her need for power and fame.
I have discussed in the earlier Chapter, The Motivation Arena, the impotency of pecuniary motivators to develop leadership worthy of ‘remarkable achievements’. We have also seen that this creates a perennial pursuit of unfulfilled self-esteem needs and may make man oblivious to higher needs like intellectual or self-actualisation needs.
A narcissist being motivated by pecuniary motivators is like holding a matchstick to a long fuse connected to an ammunition dump. As money or money’s worth could be the easiest instruments to buy prestige and power, the narcissist will not only love to capture such a position but be like a predator whose appetite for more will only grow and he will do everything to maintain his grip on the position. The only reason he would give it away will be when the context makes him feel that his need for prestige, fame and power runs a big risk of being gratified. It could also be an alternative host context that lures him away with a higher promise for prestige, fame and power.
Before it starts becoming a bit scary, let me also add that researchers like Kets de Vries & Miller (1984) have pointed out that a certain dose of narcissism is necessary to function effectively, “…Among those who show limited narcissistic tendencies we find those who are very talented and capable of making great contributions to society. Those who gravitate to the extremes, however, give narcissism its pejorative reputation.” They also observed that a person who in more normal circumstances might have led an ordinary life, has used expectations imposed on him as a child as a basis for excellence. But, this is the excellence of the loner, the autocrat not necessary that of a Leader.
But, the narcissist is quite a puritan in his choices. He is not motivated by the pecuniary benefits per se. He is only in the pursuit of prestige, fame & power. He may lead a flamboyant lifestyle as this anoints him with prestige and gives him the power over others, but he would yet be saintly in his disinterest in comparative supremacy. While he will be abrasive and reject you when he is thwarted in his pursuits that he goes after with a vengeance, he is not your man who will go after his opposition with vindictiveness. The narcissist can be quite noble once his thirst for fame and power are relatively quenched. The narcissist can handle simultaneous pursuit of intellectual needs and self-actualisation as development on these fronts may also add to his fame, prestige and power.
The danger lies more in the fact that a narcissistic personality can be quite easily mistaken for a volitionally engaged person by most. Their manifestations at work could be quite similar, although the behavioral aspects may differ. A narcissist would appear to be as ‘purpose’ driven as a volitional. Their obsessive pursuit of the goal and ability to discard any distraction could be equally intensive. But, deeper down, the fundamental difference lies in the narcissist pursuing the goal for personal outcomes in the form of fame and power. Whereas, the volitional is driven only by the purpose.
Kets de Vries & Miller brought out from their research the pathological development of different varieties of narcissism as shown in Fig. 11. It shows the relationship between parenting, behaviour, symptoms and manifestation in organisational context for three different types of narcissistic managers. Their work can be quite helpful to differentiate between narcissists and volitionals.
Fig. 11 – Ideal Varieties of Narcissism
The narcissist’s behavioral manifestations are seen in the following types of reactions. The most important aspect of this behavior is that he is normally not conscious of the manifestations, hence if you are observant, you would be able to spot the narcissist quite easily:
- Denial – Refusal to acknowledge difference between Actual & the self-perceived Ideal Self; Unconscious method of coping with otherwise intolerable conflict, anxiety and emotional distress or pain; Leads to increased confidence and feelings of invulnerability.
- Rationalisation – Attempt to justify or find reasons for unacceptable behaviour or feelings; Present them in a form consciously tolerable & acceptable; indulge in self-deception to make what is consciously repugnant appear more creditable.
- Self-Aggrandizement – Tendency to overestimate one’s merits, abilities & accomplishments; Emotionally significant unconscious wishes for fulfillment or gratification; Fantasies accompanied by extreme self-absorption, exhibitionism, claims to uniqueness and a sense of invulnerability.
- Attributional Egotism – Tendency to offer explanations for events that are self-serving; Attribution of favourable outcomes to causes, internal to the self and unfavourable outcomes to external causes; Preserves self-esteem.
- Sense of Entitlement – Strong belief in one’s right to exploit others and inability to empathise with the feelings of others; Entertain shallow interpersonal relationships; The Narcissist cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties & institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone. It contributes to his insecurity!
- Anxiety – Ability to live with anxiety and use the same to unleash positive energy.
It is anxiety that makes the narcissist find common identity with the volitional. Both personalities are friends of anxiety and unconsciously use anxiety to further their ends. Barring anxiety, all other characteristics of a narcissist as detailed above can be easily observed in real time environments as a marked differentiator to the volitionally engaged.
Having understood the drivers for a narcissist and his behavioral manifestations, I will go into three paradigms about a narcissist in organisational life and discuss the management options one can exercise:
- The Narcissist as a leader
The Narcissist can bring in values like creativity and innovation but may not be so committed to other deeper values like ethics, empathy, development of conscientious leaders and social responsibility. The narcissist does succeed in creating remarkable achievements that suits the competitive needs of organisational existence but not really work for the long term goal of the organisation in creating sustainability. Hence, the tenure of a narcissist in an organisation is better limited to certain short term contexts or achievements.
Certain managements or boards have knowingly used narcissists in leadership positions to drive dramatic change particularly to yank an enterprise out of staid historical ghettos or from ‘survival mode’ to a ‘competitive mode’. This works but finally the narcissist has to leave the enterprise as he brings the enterprise to teetering heights of activity and risks that are not sustainable. An article in a German newspaper about what a narcissist left in his wake was titled ‘He left a burnt garden after three years as the CEO…’. As a result what follows is a successor that is methodical, disciplined and consolidating in nature.
- Dealing with a narcissist
The Reactive narcissistic is better avoided in normal life. Sadly, such people are the most difficult to form any kind of relationship with as they are too acute in all their six manifestations, from denial to anxiety. They are better suited for solo roles that give them enough prestige and power. With more and more enterprises becoming a knowledge networked organisation, there are not many such roles in an organisation anymore. Other than the entrepreneur who somehow learns to leave the day-to-day management of his enterprise to others (side-kicks) or the very rare specialist role, a reactive narcissist cannot be anymore an organisation man.
On the other hand, the Constructive narcissist would be a boon to most leadership positions. A great opportunity lies in the constructive narcissist becoming volitionally engaged to the vision and objectives of the enterprise. The Deceptive narcissist for me is clearly not a fit for any leadership position as he would never be able to take decisions and stand by them through implementation hurdles.
- How do I handle my narcissistic tendencies
The weaknesses of a narcissist are sensitivity to criticism, poor listening skills, lack of empathy, dislike for mentoring and an intense desire to compete to gain fame and power.
The good news for a narcissist comes from his knowledge about the pathological nature behind these tendencies. It may be temporarily turbulent for the emotional state of the individual, but there is no better way for a narcissist to handle himself than knowing himself as best as he can. This reminds me of a 1994 Jack Nicholson movie named ‘The Wolf’, where he comes to know about his dangerous tendencies and decides to seek help from experts to protect the woman he loves and himself from his own weakness.
The more reactive narcissist I am, faster I need to seek help. Help can come in the way of someone I trust who I ‘authorise’ to criticize or stop me when I fly off the handle in my manifestations. Help can be sought by having what some may call as a ‘side-kick’ who shields the narcissist from others and vice versa. Of course, to have a side-kick who will not exploit such a confidence in itself could be a great risk. But, narcissists are quite sharp and deep in their understanding of people, even if they cannot openly practice empathy. Help can be in the form of ‘reflection time’, built by decision to develop a forced habit to check intuitive reactions before making them public or getting them vetted by your trusted side-kick.
As a practicing manager I do not have the expertise of a practicing psychotherapist. But, I am sure help can also be sought from such specialists to overcome the ghosts from one’s past that cast the narcissistic shadows in our adult life. Thankfully, most individuals do not fall at the edges of a statistical bell curve and can manage themselves quite well, once they are aware of the science behind our manifestations.
It is worthwhile to remember that like most things in life, too much of narcissism can be a stiff challenge but without a pinch of narcissism we could be lost in oblivion.
Extract from my book, ‘Ascent – A Practising Manager’s Growth Mantra’, (2014), Random House India
 Kohut, H., (1971), ‘The analysis of the self’ New York: International Universities Press
 Kernberg, O., (1979), ‘Regression in Organisational Leadership’; Psychiatry, 42, 29-39
 Kets de Vries, M. F. R. & Miller, D., (1984),‘Narcissism and Leadership: An Object relations perspective’, Working Paper, INSEAD, No. 85/19