Is Narcissistic Leadership Killing Your Culture of Collaboration?

May 27, 2020 4 Min Read
narcissism, grandiosity

On leadership, the American educator John Erskine said, “In the simplest terms, a leader is one who knows where he wants to go, and gets up and goes.”

As pithy and bold as the statement might seem, when we take a moment to reflect on it, there’s nothing going on in Erskine’s expression except for what the leader desires. To be a leader, one must have followers; in this instance, the leader isn’t waiting for anyone. He just ‘gets up and goes’.

So, really, what we have here isn’t a leader at all, but simply someone who’s taking themselves for a walk.

In fairness to Erskine, there are literally hundreds of definitions of leadership – and several ways to interpret each definition. What we can be sure of, given the oft-quoted and well-known research on employee disengagement, is that many employees feel like their leader(s) are quite happy to walk their own path without much consideration for anyone else.

Some leaders might wonder why their business has stagnated, or why their teams don’t seem to be working well together. As a result, the organisation isn’t thriving, and so leaders will fixate on all kinds of reasons to explain why this is, except one: it’s their leadership that’s killing collaboration and stifling growth.

Read: How Leaders Kill Ideas and Truth

Occam’s razor is the problem-solving principle that says that, of any given set of explanations for an event or situation, the simplest one is most likely the correct one. Often, when we’re trying to look for the root cause of a problem, we look for complex answers when, in fact, the solution is usually the simplest one that we fail to see. (Sometimes, because we don’t want to see it.)

In their 2018 study, When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures They Create, Dr Charles O’Reilly of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and his team found that leaders with narcissistic tendencies lead organisations that place “less emphasis on collaboration and integrity, endorse policies and procedures that are associated with cultures with less collaboration and integrity, and have followers who are less likely to make decisions that support collaboration and integrity.”

In psychology, narcissism is defined as “comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy”, according to the American Psychological Association.

Leaders with narcissistic traits can show signs that include: grand self-importance; a need for constant admiration; exaggerated achievements and talents; expectations to be seen as superior despite possessing achievements or expertise to warrant it; a lack of empathy towards others; and taking control of conversations, listening only to those they deem on a par with themselves.

Narcissistic leaders can be charming and, as a result, can use their charm to get ahead, close sales, and convince others to buy into their vision. They are also risk-takers, which can pay off when the risks are worth taking.

On the flipside, the ‘me before we’ leadership style cultivates a culture of individualism rather than collaboration, as people fight for preferential treatment and promotions, which often includes ‘cutting corners’, reducing the integrity of the organisation as a whole.

The Stanford researchers concluded that, if narcissistic leadership is allowed to flourish within organisations, “leaders may leave a lasting, and negative, legacy on the organisations they lead.”


Not only will the success of the organisation begin to spiral as the narcissistic leadership loses its flavour and effectiveness on outsiders (customers, partners, stakeholders), employees will also be quick to go elsewhere, adding to a growing attrition rate.

Dealing with narcissistic leaders is difficult and, at best, can result in a case of damage control rather than any meaningful progress. Organisations would do well to spot signs of such leadership early on and make sure it doesn’t get a chance to take hold (an offshoot of narcissistic leadership is that leaders tend to promote those who reflect their own behaviours).

Collaboration and effective communication are absolutely crucial to success in today’s world. Nowadays, employees have a greater range of options to go elsewhere if they feel unheard and disrespected. We need leaders who work well with others, who listen actively, inviting ideas and suggestions, and taking them on board.

Read also: The Qualities of a Good Boss (According to Google)

As leaders, it falls to us to constantly reflect on how we’re doing, to seek honest feedback, and improve our performance just as we would expect of our employees.

Leadership isn’t about getting up and going wherever and however we please. Being an effective leader is built on working well with others, being part of a team, and walking with people in the same direction, inspired collectively by a shared vision. When leaders get it wrong, they end up walking alone, with no-one alongside to help guide them forward in the right direction. In that scenario, we all lose out.

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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