When I was working in the corporate arena years ago, I had the great misfortune of reporting to and working with a number of extremely toxic colleagues, managers and narcissistic leaders whose behaviour hurt me and was also a complete mystery to me.
I couldn’t understand their raging, their defensiveness, they inability to be challenged or questioned, or their penchant for drumming people out who were not obsequious and total “yes” people to them. And it was astounding to me that leadership and management allowed these individuals to remain in their posts, doing all this damage.
After I became a marriage and family therapist and career coach, I learned a great deal about narcissistic personality disorder, and how it can wreak havoc on those who are in relationships with the narcissist. (Here’s more on how to recognize NPD in your boss and what to do about it.) Several years ago, I wished to help adult children of narcissists in a more direct way and built a Facebook group of over 2,000 adults who’d been dramatically and negatively affected by the narcissists in their lives. From their sharing, it was even more evident how destructive narcissism is in our lives and work.
From my view, we all need to understand narcissistic personality disorder more deeply, not to attack or demean narcissistic leaders, but to protect ourselves from harm, build stronger boundaries, and learn more about how to navigate effectively through the challenges of working with individuals who demonstrate these traits.
Towards that end, I was excited to catch up this month with Dov Baron. Baron has been twice cited as one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers and named as one of the Top 30 Global Leadership Gurus. He works with international leaders and organizations who are committed to finding the “Why beneath their Why” to create a positive legacy that lifts humanity.
Baron has deep experience with narcissistic leaders and has important information to share on the issue. Here’s his take:
Kathy Caprino: One thing you stress in your work is the need for leaders to have a strong relationship with self. What does that mean?
Dov Baron: Great leaders understand that all leadership is relationship-based. Furthermore, for relationships to be productive, they must have a degree of closeness and understanding—intimacy, if you will. Intimacy with another cannot take place until we have a strong self-relationship—intimacy with ourselves. That kind of intimacy comes only from sustained self-growth.
Caprino: What types of leaders and influencers struggle the most with forging a strong relationship with self?
Baron: If, at some level, we have been indoctrinated with the idea we are “not enough,” we either go on a rampage to prove that we are enough (which, while it can result in massive success, often leaves an emotional mess in its wake) or we quit on ourselves. In either case, it becomes difficult to forge a strong, intimate relationship with ourselves or with others because we are so externally driven. In these cases, self-inquiry is seen as an admission of weakness or fault.
Caprino: In your work with top influencers and leaders, you’ve said you’ve seen a good deal of narcissism. What do narcissistic leaders tell themselves and others?
Baron: The narcissistic leaders will always argue that their results justify their means. They will often use grandiose language about a greater good, which is how they con others into following them, but the truth is that everyone is merely a pawn in the narcissist’s game. They see others as less—less intelligent, less worthy, less capable, less deserving—and that’s how they justify their lies and manipulations.
Caprino: Why are narcissistic lies so damaging?
Baron: It starts with a need of the narcissistic leaders to always to be right, the inability to apologize, and a pervasive air of entitlement. The result is that such a leader does not get to grow and will invariably end up surrounded by sycophants. Such a leader not only damages the culture and morals, they will invariably suffocate innovation. We know and the research is clear—people who do not feel emotionally safe stop innovating.