Anton, I’m not a narcissist, am I?

I got asked that very question in a leadership coaching session recently. 

By a leader who had been told that they are a narcissist.  

Which isn’t that uncommon in 2022, as more and more leaders (and their teams) learn about psychology, and what drives behaviour. Narcissism is like the buzz word of 2022. And at times rightly so.  

Here is how I answered the question (and if you know me well enough, it was with some questions of my own – here are the three questions I asked)! Note that I have taken some poetic license to tell the story in a way that makes sense and talks to the topic of narcissism. 

Question 1: Do you know what narcissism is? 

Answer: Well, yeah, sort of? Making it all about me, right. Or being aggressive, maybe. 

Discussion: Ish. 

There are generally three types of narcissism (and these are all explained differently, depending on the text that you read). Let’s look at it not from a psych perspective, which would talk about it as a diagnosable personality disorder, let’s look at it from a leadership perspective. The three types of narcissism (according to Business Insider) include exhibitionist, closet, or toxic narcissism.   

Exhibitionist narcissists (also called grandiose narcissists) take a ‘look at me’ approach to life. It is all about them. They want to be in the spotlight, and they think they are better than everyone else. “They think they’re amazing — they think themselves to be smarter, better-looking, more powerful than other people, and they pretty much believe it”. In short, they are over-confident, and don’t really care what others think about them. 

As a leader, they are always right. They are doing the best job. They can’t be told. And they certainly don’t think your idea is better than theirs.  

Closet narcissists (also called vulnerable narcissists) take a ‘poor me’ approach to life. It is all about them, but they play the victim card. IT is the behaviour of these narcissists that created the term ‘gaslighting’ which is about always feeling bad about yourself when you are around a closet narcissist. They are passive aggressive, and nothing is their fault. They want to be grandiose, but don’t know how. And are frustrated by that. They are chameleons and are nice to you one minute (maybe in public) and not so much the next (maybe in private). 

As a leader, they are unpredictable. Their team members will never feel good about themselves, but they won’t know why. Their team members don’t ever feel worthy or valued. Or cared for. 

Toxic narcissists (also called chaotic narcissists) take a ‘wilful damage’ approach to life. They thrive on (and actively cause) chaotic situations. This is the worst type of narcissist, as they go out of their way to be destructive and malevolent. Toxic narcissists “are perfectly fine destroying the careers of other people, basically fine with just imploding people emotionally, physically, and spiritually”. It is safe to say that you don’t want to be in the team of a toxic narcissist. 

As a leader, they are very, very harmful. Their team members not only feel hurt, but they are really hurt. Their careers are damaged. Their emotions are damaged. Their resilience is damaged. And all very overtly. Out in public, for all to see. 

It is worth noting that narcissism is characterised (generally) by grandiose behaviour and fantasies, arrogance and entitlement, very low levels of empathy, and a need for admiration and attention. 

Question 2: Why did the person think you are a narcissist? 

Answer: I’m actually not sure. I didn’t ask, I was really taken aback by the conversation, and it hurt a bit to be called that. I have never been called that before. Though there are times when I could have acted like all three of those.  

Discussion: Great. An honest response. And narcissism is considered by some as a spectrum. That is, we are all on the spectrum, and tend to be narcissistic, even if it is only in a very small way.  

Here is the big thing, and this is what we work through in our leadership programs. Do you feel like you are helping more than you are hindering? Do you feel like you are healing more than you are harming? What I mean by that is that leadership by definition is about lifting people up, not putting them down. It is about being a good human, and leaving people better than you found them, even when you must have robust conversations.  

Leadership interactions should be done in a positive, and empathetic way, that do no harm. Here are the big three questions to ask yourself, if you feel like you could be considered a narcissistic: 

  • Is my intent good, or is it to harm others (and you need to answer this honestly) – a true narcissist doesn’t have the right intent 
  • Am I aggressive, abusive, or abrupt in my delivery or interactions (if so, that is uncool) – because it means that you are happy to hurt others 
  • Can I be empathetic, and understand what others are experiencing (if not, that is very uncool) – because it means that you are not only happy to hurt others, but also that you have zero understanding of the impact that both your behaviour and the experiences of others has on their emotional state 

Question 3: Where to from here? 

Answer: I think we can always continue to do self-development work. So, I am going to take it on as a challenge to work on how I show up as a leader. If you were me, what would you recommend?  

Discussion: Great question. Here are the things that you could consider as an action plan to continue your leadership development. And maybe don’t think about this as an ‘anti-narcissism’ plan, think about it as a ‘working on being an even better leader’ plan. 

It’s not about you! 

Remember that leadership is about the team performance, and the individuals in the team. And their development. The easiest way to be a great leader is to be thinking about how you can support your team to become a better version of itself, and to take your team to the level of high performance. Where your focus goes, your energy flows – if you think about your team, you will be more likely to be seen as a caring and connected leader. 

Empathy can be learnt… 

Remember that being able to empathise with other humans is potentially the most important skill you can learn as a leader. And yes, it can be learnt. If you are up for it. Empathy is about being able to think through (cognition) what it might be like for the other person in this situation. Then, feeling (emotions) what it is that they might be feeling. The big part of empathy is compassion (action). Every single human is born compassionate. But it can take effort at times to go out of your way to help another human when they are in need. It is worth it, though. 

Create conscious control 

This is the big one! Without conscious control (emotional, situational, and behavioural control), you will never maintain great relationships with your team members. Thinking fast and talking slow is the key skill required to manage your emotions. Which is basically about knowing what your triggers are, and responding, not reacting, to situations, circumstances, or human behaviour. And doing no harm. 

Hope that all helps! 

I’ll see you in a fortnight, and we can talk through your progress! 

Would love to hear your comments on this. Have you worked with or in a team led by a narcissist? 

And could you please do me a favour, and share this with leaders everywhere? This is an important topic for leaders. 

And ofcourse, please click the image below if you’d like to chat about what leadership means to you.

If you would like to learn more about Anton or The Guinea Group, please click hereto book into Anton’s calendar, to:

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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