By Patrick Malone

Narcissists are the selfies of the work world. And while we know that a certain amount of healthy narcissism is requisite for good leadership, the sad fact is there are many out there possessing the more destructive brand—the leaders who make life almost unbearable.

Readers probably have heard the term ‘narcissist’ or ‘narcissistic behavior’ and have used these words to describe leaders known for their grandiose self-image and lack of concern for others. The emotional drain and fatigue from these people can seem almost overwhelming.

What fuels this self-absorption in leaders? Can it have positive effects? What is the impact on how work is conducted? Most importantly, how do local government managers deal with it?

Narcissism Defined

Vignette 1: “Oh yeah, the new county commissioner is just amazing, but not in a good way. Every policy option we present seems to always turn out to be about him, how it will affect him, and how he will look to others. I swear he must have “It’s all about me” tattooed somewhere on his body. He has no visible concern or interest in those of us actually doing the work. It’s almost like we’re simply a means to his end. To make matters worse, he’s not afraid to take credit for anything we do well, whether he had anything to do with it or not.”

Narcissism is about overly inflated self-image, arrogance, and lack of compassion. Author W. Keith Campbell1 and his colleagues, in their 2011 comprehensive examination of narcissism, provide an excellent framework in which to view this type of self-absorbed behavior. They suggest we think of narcissism as containing three important parts: the self, interpersonal relationships, and self-regulatory strategies.

The self. Narcissists are focused on self. In the example above, the county commissioner is characterized by a sense of vanity. Certainly his world revolves around him. His overt concern about how he looks to others is a clear indication of his desire for power and prestige.

Interpersonal relationships. Narcissists are not capable of authentic, meaningful work relationships. An employee’s complaints about the commissioner suggest he has low emotional intelligence, especially in the areas of empathy and concern for others.

One can easily imagine the ruined careers in his wake as he clawed his way into his current position. The relationships he’s established are most likely exploitative in nature.

Self-regulatory strategies. Narcissists are strategic. The commissioner knows what he’s doing. Based on the behavior we see described above, he places himself in the spotlight as often as he can in order to garner attention. He’s likely to behave in any way that will get him what he wants.

In this first vignette, the commissioner clearly behaves in a narcissistic manner. Self-focused leaders exhibit a cold, dispassionate attitude toward others. Their devaluation, exploitation, arrogance, criticism, micromanagement, and failure to fulfill their responsibilities to individuals cloaks them in a veil of competence.

To make matters more complicated, narcissists excel at organizational politics. They can adeptly work a room with charm, fostering a positive first impression. The superficial nature of the relationships they form, especially with those in power, often yield an undeserved admiration from others they meet.

Contributing Factors

Vignette 2: “I would say ‘cutthroat’ is a good way to describe our bureau. If it can’t be measured here, no one seems to care. Anything remotely related to morale, teamwork, or realistic evaluations is scoffed at as ‘soft and squishy.’ The only reasons people stick around are the benefits.”

Granted, unhealthy narcissism can be a result of complex psychosocial or genetic factors, but organizational cultures can also encourage such behavior. Cultures that are created and maintained to support political goals instead of public good can be a veritable petri dish of narcissists. A few syndromes present in organizations at risk include:

Metric-mania. Intense pressure by residents forces agencies to become over-reliant on demonstrable metrics to prove organizational effectiveness. Narcissists who are able to meet productivity goals may be praised for their success even at the expense of such other dynamics important to government as building effective teams, maintaining office morale, and recruiting and developing new talent.

It’s not my problem. Self-absorbed individuals often are allowed to climb the career ladder in organizations. Why? Narcissists excel at exhibiting a mix of poise and self-assurance that can be extremely attractive.

Fear of the 360. Many organizations either do not employ the 360-degree feedback mechanism or do not make significant use of it in promotion and compensation decisions. Such tools allow senior leaders to reach down in the organization to find the untold div. Sometimes, this is a div they may not want to hear.

Covering the tracks. When all else fails, self-focused leaders have a way of disappearing into the woodwork and organizations may be letting this happen. The mystique of the overly self-confident individual contributes to this organizational acquiescence, as does the skill of the narcissist at credit claiming and rewriting his or her performance hidiv.

Toxic culture. Some organizations foster self-absorbed behavior. Author Jarl Jorstad2 notes that typical characteristics include an unwelcome attitude toward new collaborators, an unwillingness to permit inspection or research from the outside, and intolerance of criticism.

The Selfie Approach

Vignette 3: “I can’t say I like dealing with Councilman Gordon. In fact, I try to avoid it at all costs. When I have to, and I mean have to, I try to smile a lot, compliment him on his successes with the city, and try to help him understand that aiding me actually serves him as well. When I’m successful at this dance, good things sometimes happen. Still waiting for the other shoe to drop though. It’s exhausting!”

Many would argue there is little hope in dealing with individuals who have inflated self-importance. But by recognizing these individuals for what they are, selfies, managers can take steps that bring some measure of relief.

Surface. The first and most effective way to deal with self-absorbed leaders is to recognize them. Busy managers may write off observed behavior as a one-time event without recognizing consistent damaging effects.

It is important for leaders to keep an eye out for the signs of destructively narcissistic behavior: defensiveness, exorbitant self-promotion, lack of concern for others, credit-claiming, and, of course, sucking-up to those in power.

Engage. Engaging a narcissist is advisable only after carefully weighing the consequences. Does the narcissist, for example, have direct oversight of you or your staff? Does the person control your resource stream? If so, tread lightly. As a reminder, you are the ends to his or her means.

Direct confrontation will typically lead to frustration and depending on your position relative to the person, worse. Be specific about the reason for your engagement and always communicate in writing if possible. E-mail strings can provide important documentation against future retribution from an encounter gone awry.

Listen. Self-centered individuals demand an audience. Listening attentively and empathetically can help shore up their fragile self-image. The added benefit is, of course, insight into what the narcissist is thinking, feeling, and planning.

Keep in mind, poor listening is the common cold of leadership. You may as well practice as often as you can. The narcissist will most definitely provide an excellent test-bed for this skill.

Frame. Frame things in a way that will appeal to the egotism so prominent in the narcissist. Find some way to validate her value to the organization. Entreat him to assist you in understanding a new program. Ask her to offer some guidance in how to tackle a tricky policy dilemma.

Before encountering the narcissist, ponder the question, “what’s in it for him or her?” By identifying the path to the narcissist’s needs, it’s much easier to stay in his or her good graces and out of the doghouse.

Isolate. It’s always a good idea to simply avoid interaction if you are able. Do yourself a favor and limit your exposure. Narcissists are masters of disappointment and you are useful to them only so long as you are useful to them. A polite smile and a nod can go a long way in avoiding both flat-out confrontation and inauthentic adulation.

Extricate. When all else fails, removing oneself from the situation may be the best strategy. Simply stepping out of a meeting for a moment, gathering your emotions, and taking a few deep breaths are the best strategy. Re-engage when your emotions and responses are under control.

Some Positive Aspects

Vignette 4: “I knew it would be a challenge to step into the new job when it was advertised. It requires personality, presence, technical knowledge, and an ability to build teams. But I knew I could do it. I’ve always supported those I lead. Been knocked down a time or two, but that’s okay. I’m psyched about where we’re going from here, and I’m ready for the challenge!”

It’s worth a brief discussion here about the positive aspects of narcissism. The fact is, we all exhibit narcissistic behavior. Michael Maccoby’s3 groundbreaking Harvard Business Review article, “Narcissistic Leaders—The Incredible Pros and Cons,” described narcissists as “gifted and creative strategists who see the big picture and find meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy. Productive narcissists are not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric.”

Indeed, good leaders at all levels exhibit healthy narcissism. It allows us to maintain a secure self-esteem, permits us to deal constructively with failure, and it keeps us centered.

Good narcissism gives us the strength to maintain a healthy self-image. We see ourselves as worthwhile, valuable people. Constructive and positive narcissism allows us to enjoy power but not abuse it, and seek admiration but not relish it.

Have a Look in the Mirror

Vignette 5: “Stephanie sure seems to have changed since her promotion to lead city planner. All of a sudden she seems far more interested in looking over my shoulder as we’re conversing to see who’s coming in the room. It’s like if there’s someone more important out there she’ll make a beeline directly to them.

“In meetings she begins most of her sentences with ‘I.’ Always thought that was a dead giveaway. I know she’s the focus right now, but there were a lot of people whose hard work she depended upon to get where she is.”

What responsibility do city managers have for avoiding the perilous trap of self-absorbed behavior? Truth be told, we’re all at risk for allowing ourselves to develop bad habits and destructive narcissistic behavior.

The answer lies in embracing the tenets of emotional intelligence and self-reflection. Taking the time to meditate, reflect, and assess where we are as leaders helps provide the necessary pause needed to keep a busy life in perspective. Practice the selfie method described above, but also take the time to look in the mirror on occasion and appraise what you see.

Author Zauderer4 notes that “one of the highest accomplishments of an organization is to build a community where people feel included and welcomed and work together with mutual respect to enhance individual and organizational productivity.” This is the kind of environment that will build a synergistic, collective vigor that attracts and retains quality talent.

By recognizing and dealing with selfies we encounter as well as monitoring our own self-absorption tendencies, we take one step closer to better public service for all.


1 W. Keith Campbell, Brian J. Hoffman. Stacy M. Campbell, Gaia Marchisio (2011). Narcissism in Organizational Contexts. Human Resource Management Review 21:268–284.

2. Jorstad, Jarl. (1996). Narcissism and Leadership: Some Differences in Male and Female Leaders. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. 17(6): 17–23.

3 Michael Maccoby. (2005). “Narcissistic Leaders—The Incredible Pros and Cons,” in Harvard Business Review on The Mind of the Leader. Harvard Business School Press.

4 Zauderer, D. (2002). “Workplace Incivility and the Management of Human Capital.” The Public Manager, Spring: 36–42.

Patrick Malone, Ph.D., is director, Key Executive Leadership Programs, Department of Public Administration and Policy, American University, Washington, D.C. (



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