How to overcome being a narcissistic leader

I work with narcissistic leaders from time to time. While narcissistic leaders are often very ambitious, driven and successful, they do not empower, promote, recognize and elevate the people around them. Instead, they tend to take the credit, seek the limelight and remain the stars of the show under all circumstances.

Here are eight typical characteristics of narcissistic leaders:

  1. They always have to be “the star”. They don’t like to share the limelight, elevate others and overall enable others around them to become too powerful, influential or great. In fact, they seem to be threatened by others shining and they get quite upset when others play too much of a dominant role.
  2. They take the credit for successes and blame others and circumstances for failures. They love to namedrop and they often talk about team success as “their success”. On the flip side, they avoid talking about failures and they definitely don’t like to take responsibility for the negative impact of their behaviors on others.
  3. They don’t trust and empower others very effectively. When there are challenges, their first reaction is often to step in and take control, rather than trust and delegate. They tend to divide and conquer, rather than build a cohesive team to rely on.
  4. They don’t communicate clearly and directly, especially around uncomfortable topics. They shy away from conflict or having straight conversations. They don’t bring clarity and closure to issues. When they are frustrated with someone they tend to engage in back-channel talk, rather than face the issues head-on. And often, when they believe that they have communicated clearly and directly regarding an uncomfortable topic, those with whom they have communicated were left confused, uncertain and with a different message.
  5. They are erratic, inconsistent and unreliable in their reactions and behaviors. They are often late to meetings; people come on time and have to wait, sometime for hours. They constantly make last-minute unannounced changes to schedule and meetings with no apparent regard for the impact on others. And, they often make decisions that have a significant impact on others out of impulse and emotion, which they later regret and reverse.
  6. They don’t create a genuine and effective environment of accountability. They preach accountability, say all the right slogans but they don’t establish clear and specific objectives and expectations with their people. They also don’t manage and hold people to account for their commitments and deliverables.
  7. They know best and they are not very open to feedback, criticism, and coaching. They avoid conversation in which criticism could be given and they are defensive or get offended when criticism is given.
  8. They have low self-reflection abilities and self-awareness.  They come across as very tough and assertive. However, if you give them blunt negative feedback about their narcissistic nature they tend to get deeply hurt and offended.

Are you a narcissistic leader?

If you are not sure if you are a narcissistic leader, assess yourself against these eight characteristics. Even better, ask someone you trust who really knows you well and will be straight with you:

“How do people around me see and experience me?”

You may not have the most objective perspective about yourself. Other people may view you differently then you view yourself. Trying to understand their experience may be eye-opening and enlightening.

If you want to improve in this area and become a more empowering leader here are eight practical principles and tips that will help you:

  1. Be the bigger person – Give the credit to others when there are successes.
  2. Be responsible – Take the responsibility on yourself when there are failures.
  3. Be generous – Look for opportunities every day to recognize, acknowledge and praise people around you for small, medium and big things.
  4. Be respectful – Recognize people in public and criticize them in private.
  5. Be empowering– Make sure every conversation and interaction you have with others, no matter what the topic, leaves them more energized, focused and empowered.
  6. Be trusting – Make sure your people have clear objectives and expectations that they own and then let them implement their objectives in their own way.
  7. Be reliable – Keep your promises, commitments, and timelines, no matter how small or big, with no excuses, just like you expect others to do.
  8. Be a role model – Model everything you want others to do, and treat others exactly the way you want them to treat you.

Can your team handle tough conversations?

If you want to know how powerful your team is, just see how team members deal with sensitive and tough topics.

Sensitive and tough topics are any subjects that require the leaders and team members to put their own personal feelings, egos, and agendas aside for the greater good of their company or team.

It could be anything as big as deciding which team to invest in, which team member to promote or re-allocating people and budgets from one leader’s team to another. It could be something as trivial as giving honest feedback to colleagues, your boss or subordinates about poor performance.

When it comes to sensitive and tough conversations the line between big and small topics becomes blurry because people often tend to take even the most insignificant topics personally, which leads to out of proportion reactions and behaviors.

In powerful teams, members never lose sight of the bigger picture. They put their team and company first and they always strive to do the right and the best thing for the collective cause.

In powerful teams, people don’t hold back their punches when it comes to discussing and debating the tough and sensitive topics. Teammates may fully ‘go at it’, push back and disagree with other team members, but they continue to listen to each other, consider each other’s views and they never cross the line of interacting in a disrespectful way.

At the end of the conversation or meeting when the team or their boss makes a decision all team members genuinely align, own and support the verdict, whether in their personal favor or not. When they go back to their respective teams they represent the decision as their own in a united front with their colleagues.

I have seen some great teams that exemplify this behavior. However, I have also seen many teams that don’t. I think it would be safe to say that most teams don’t do a great job in dealing with tough and sensitive topics.

Take for example the senior leadership team of a large technology company. The company experienced serious growing pains after achieving the best performance year in their entire history. As a result of their sudden surge of business, they simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. They were not set up for the next level of service and support.

Instead of coming together to find a solution and make the necessary changes to accommodate the growth the senior leaders blamed each other for the crisis. Finger pointing led to defensiveness and the hostility grew. There was even a traumatic screaming match in one of the leadership team meetings, which resulted in some leaders outright stopping to speak with other team members.

It took the leaders a long time to turn things around, and the process left internal and external scars. Key customers felt frustrated by the fact that the company didn’t deliver its obligations on time, and managers and employees felt frustrated about the petty and immature manner in which their leaders handled the crisis.

In a completely different example, the senior leadership team of the HR function of a large global company was having an honest discussion about the state of morale of their wider team, including how to motivate their staff after several rounds of company layoffs. The leaders invited a few next level managers to the meeting in order to describe the state of affairs, especially to their boss who they felt wasn’t as connected to the reality of her organization.

The managers were blunt. They painted a dire picture of HR managers and employees who felt uncared for, demoralized and disconnected from headquarter and the senior team.

The leader thanked the managers for their honest feedback, but when they left the room she turned to her leaders and scolded them for allowing their managers to feel and express such negative feelings and views. It was apparent to all that the head of HR took everything the managers said personally. Needless to say, the level of fear increased exponentially from that day on, and the ability of this senior team to discuss and address the real tough and sensitive issues decreased.

Let’s be honest, addressing the tough and sensitive issues in a productive, constructive and respectful manner (no matter what), takes leadership maturity and courage.

Unfortunately, too often there isn’t enough of these qualities even in the most senior teams.


Stop having objectives if you are not going to explicitly promise to fulfill them!

All teams have objectives or outcomes, which team members usually believe in, aspire to and want to deliver. However, not all teams have the same relationship with their objectives and outcomes.

Most leaders and teams seem to believe that if their objectives are well articulated and clear enough they have a greater chance of succeeding.

That is not necessarily true. Yes, it makes a difference that an objective or outcome is well articulated. However, I have seen many teams with well-articulated outcomes achieve mediocre traction against their outcomes. In contrast, I have seen teams with mediocre level outcomes achieve extraordinary traction and results against their outcomes.


Most leaders and teams seem to believe that when they articulate a set of objectives, inherent to them is a genuine relationship of ownership, responsibility and accountability toward them, by those who created them.

When teams set their objectives – at the end of the process they don’t typically have a conversation that goes like this: “So, is everyone in this room promising to fulfill these objectives?!” I venture to say that people would take offense to such a conversation, and what it implies or questions about their commitment.

However, if this conversation did take place I am sure most people would push back and say: “We can’t promise to fulfill the objectives… we can only promise to do our best… or carry out the actions we believe would/should fulfill our objectives…

I get this valid push back. There are no guarantees and no one can promise to fulfill any type of future. However, there is a nuance here that makes all the difference. It is between having a relationship with your objectives of “doing our best…” or “carrying out the actions…” and “explicitly promising to deliver the outcome itself…

The word “explicitly” is key. Leaders and teams seem to have a paradigm that objectives come with a built-in feature of a relationship of ownership and commitment toward them.

I know it sounds ludicrous when you read it on paper. However, if you judge by leaders’ reaction to lack of ownership and commitment you would realize that they expect it. They think that ownership and commitment are implied.

But, unfortunately, as we all know, nothing could be further from the truth. Ownership and commitment are never implied. If you don’t explicitly discuss, declare and create them, they do not exist.

To add insult to injury – there is no point in having outcomes at all if you are not going to promise them. Without an explicit promise, outcomes are like a sales boat sitting in the middle of the ocean without the necessary wind to drive them to their destination.

In order to promise an outcome, it has to be clear and measurable. Sometimes teams justify their lack of rigorous thinking with the excuse that certain areas simply can’t be measured. This is never true. You can measure anything that is important to you. You could use existing, new, objective or subjective metrics to do so. However, as long as you and your team members are aligned behind, and own the measurable outcomes you have chosen you are in good shape.

Metrics should never be an afterthought. A powerful outcome doesn’t have metrics associated with it… it actually is a promise of the metric. There are no outcomes independent of metric and there is no metric independent of outcomes.

Outcomes without metrics are general, ambiguous and at best they determine direction. Metrics alone merely explain how you intend to measure your outcomes, but they don’t stake any actual outcome, therefore they are interesting but useless.

In addition, metrics are past looking.

I worked with a team that felt strongly that in order to manage their services effectively it was important for them to track certain metrics. So they picked a few that were important and every quarter they would report out to their boss how they were faring against their metric. Some quarters their results were slightly up and other times it was slightly down. Tracking their metrics allowed them to compare the last quarter with past quarters and explain away why things were going up or down. After a few quarters of repeating this process, they also added to their presentation their prediction of how the next quarter should be, based on past performance.

This is a classic example. If you explain the past for long enough and you don’t promise a different future instead, your explained past will become your future outcome, by default.

When you promise an outcome, you are creating the future and staking yourself to it. The word and concept of promising make your objectives very personal. It doesn’t mean that you will always succeed. There are no guarantees.

However, would you rather have your team members coming to work each day with a relationship to their objectives as a set of outcomes or, as their outcomes, which they are promising to cause?

I think the answer is clear!

Why are people so afraid of bluntness?

What is wrong with being blunt?

Most people generally tend to avoid being too blunt. However, in many organizations bluntness is non existent and in most organizations Ambiguity and Vagueness are an epidemic.

I couldn’t count the number of times I have been in a meeting about an important topic and someone rambled on and on without getting to the point, or someone expressed their opinion and still no one understood what it is, or someone said they had the solution only to continue to highlight the problems, which everyone already understood to begin with.

People tend to talk a lot without saying much!

I see this behavior at every level of the organization, from the most senior executives to the lowest level employees. In fact, sometimes it seems that the higher you go in the corporate ladder more politically correct and vague the communications.

People seem to associate bluntness with negative qualities such as disrespect, carelessness and offensive and hurtful behaviors. I understand why people have these perceptions.

Most people tend to be blunter when they are upset, frustrated, resentful or fed up with something or someone. In these emotional moments, people tend to express themselves in a more compulsive, abrasive and less thoughtful way. We also tend to regret things we say or the way we say things more often when we are upset.

However, when you check the word blunt in the Thesaurus it gives you:
frank, honest, straight, candid, no-nonsense, forthright and straight-talking.

What is wrong with these synonyms? If we all had more of these qualities we would probably be much more effective; we would probably move things faster and waste less time on BS.

Bluntness is relative. Some cultures like Belgium and Australia for example, pride themselves with their bluntness. What is considered blunt in Asia is considered cautious and/or politically correct in the UK or the USA.

Also, even though generally speaking most corporate cultures don’t encourage or tolerate bluntness, different corporate cultures have different levels of tolerance.

I have seen teams that can address even the most sensitive challenges like peer reviews, budget and resource allocation and promotion decisions in the most open, honest, direct and blunt manner without anyone leaving the conversation feeling offended, upset or diminished. In contrast, I have seen more examples of manager and/or employee who mustered the courage to be blunt only to get criticized, sidelined and even fired for inappropriate behavior or not being team players.

The level of bluntness in a team depends on its leader; his or her personal courage and comfort level with frank, honest, straight, candid no-nonsense communication, as well as their ability to instil a safe and productive environment in which risk-averse, honest, straight, candid, no-nonsense communication is accepted and adopted by all.

Some leaders don’t have the courage to create a blunt environment because they are afraid that some of the bluntness may be pointed at their lack of leadership resolve, authenticity, transparency and/or effectiveness.

If the leader is blunt, but he or she doesn’t create a safe and productive environment around them, people will become afraid and behave in cautious and politically correct ways. Needless to say, team productivity, effectiveness and morale will deteriorate.

Alternatively, when team members want to be frank, honest, straight and candid but their leader is politically correct and risk-averse, there will be a greater likelihood of political, passive-aggressive behaviors and dynamics.

Whatever the culture, in order for frank, honest, straight, candid and no-nonsense communication to be productive and impactful, it has to be based on a genuine foundation of respect and trust.

When people feel that they are not judged by their bluntness, but rather they are viewed and respected based on their commitment, performance and results, they are less likely to experience blunt comments and interactions as a danger or threat.

When people trust that their leader and team members are in it together and they always have each other’s backs, not just when it is easy or things go their way, they will be excited to participate in and contribute to making their team environment more frank, honest, straight, candid and no-nonsense.

So, if you want to create a more frank, honest, straight and candid team environment, don’t shoot down or shut down blunt communications. Rather, create a greater team context of respect, trust and partnership among all team members. The stronger foundation you build the bolder your communications will be.

And, of course…. You will have to be courageous to do this!

Are you staying on top of your communications?

Recently I wanted to get some additional phone and TV services from my cable provider, so I called them up and after being passed along from one agent to another I finally asked to speak with a supervisor. 

After hearing my frustrations and needs the supervisor apologized and promised to take care of all my needs quickly and effectively. There was one item that he couldn’t get for me in our call so he gave me his personal email address and again he pledged to get back to me ASAP with the resolution.

Several days passed and I didn’t hear from him so I emailed him a few times and eventually he responded, again apologizing for the delay and re-promising to get back to me soon. When I asked him “Why didn’t you get back to me?” he respond with “I didn’t have anything to report…”.

How many times have you been in a situation in which someone promised you to get back to you about something important and they didn’t or they took too much time to get back to you…. OR you left someone a message or email to call you back regarding a matter that was important to you, and they simply didn’t call or email or only did so after a very long time?

People don’t seem to get it. Responding to communications, getting back in a timely manner and overall being in communication is not merely about providing information. It is about establishing and strengthening your brand – especially your commitment, care, reliability, credibility and integrity. It is about building trust and partnership with others for whatever you are dealing with now, but also for future interactions and opportunities.

I frequently hear parents tell their kids “Please get off your device!” My wife and I do it too. I have a dear friend who is a very successful real estate broker. When we go out to dinner together he is constantly on his phone dealing with some deal or another. We constantly ask him to get off his phone and be present.

It has never been easier to communicate, yet the degree of lack of communication all around is astonishing.

In his book Fifth Generation Management, Charles M. Savage described this paradox in the following way:

Although people are able to communicate across the hall or around the world at the speed of light with computers networks, human distrust slows real communication to a snail’s pace”

Why are people generally so bad at being in communication?

Here are some likely reasons:

  1. If you are on top of all your communications you may gain a reputation for being an effective, reliable and accountable leader. As a result, people may have higher expectations of you and even ask you to do more things for them.
  2. If you manage all your communications in a timely and impeccable manner you will create clarity around you about what you stand for and what you will and won’t do. This may make some people happy but disappoint others. It takes courage to be straight about who you are and what you can and can’t be counted on.
  3. If you manage your communications clearly and effectively more of your focus and time will be spent in a committed mode – on delivering what you promised to yourself and others. You may feel as if you have less commitment-free time or control over your own personal priorities and schedule.
  4. Being in communication often leads to deeper intimacy and trust with others. As rewarding as this may be, intimacy is not always comfortable.

If you want to hide or stay smaller, you will probably continue to not be effective at staying on top of your communications. However, if you want to be a powerful leader and someone who is known for keeping his or her word as well as getting things done, being in communication will be your natural mode. In fact, you won’t be able to sleep at night when you are not on top of your communications and relationships.

By the way, let me make it clear – I am not talking about being perfect at it. No one is perfect and perfection is not even a worthwhile benchmark (a topic for another blog…)

If you are that person here are a few principles to follow:

  1. In your communications always make clear promises, write them down and circle back on them with the people you committed to, or the people who are expecting your commitments to be delivered.
  2. Promise when you will get back to people and get back to them on time, even if you haven’t finished the task or you don’t have much to report.
  3. If you haven’t been in communication with someone that is important to you for a while, be in communication with them every so often, even just to say hello and see how they are doing. Always keep the channels of communication open and current with people who have been, are now and/or will be important for you personally and professionally.
  4. If you promised to get back to someone on a certain date or you know or suspect they may be expecting that, communicate with them even just to tell them that you haven’t forgotten and you will get back to them by a new specific time.

Be in communication and stay in communication. If you screw up, don’t beat yourself up, just be in communication about the fact that you haven’t been in communication, apologize and promise to do better in the future…. And then live up to that.