Reading the following excerpt in the introduction to the book, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective by Dennis Tourish, hooked me immediately: “Most research into leadership presents leaders as heroic, charismatic and transformational ‘visionaries’. The leader, whether in business, politics or any other field is the most important factor in determining whether an organization succeeds or fails. Despite the fundamental mistakes which have directly led to global economic recession, it is often still taken for granted that transformational leadership is a good thing, and that leaders should have much more power than followers in deciding what needs to be done. The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership confronts this orthodoxy by illustrating how such approaches can encourage narcissism, megalomania and poor decision making on the part of leaders, at great expense to those organizations they serve.” I love his bold critique of the notion of transformational leadership and how it can inadvertently breed narcissistic leaders who have little care for the people they lead and can potentially corrupt leaders with too much power. In some ways, it appears that we are also raising more children to become narcissistic adults when we overindulge them and don’t set proper limits or boundaries for them. Too many kids sit in my office with an extremely entitled attitude and a disturbingly disrespectful relationship with their parents. They seem to expect everyone to accommodate them and morph around everything they want, whether it is healthy or not.
The author continues this argument by reminding us that power flows in both directions, and that in most organizations, “moments of contestation are precluded by power imbalances. But to stress only this aspect of power relationships misses crucial processes of co-construction that also occur. For example, ingratiating behavior by followers, in which they exaggerate how much they agree with the opinions of leaders, contributes to exaggerated self-belief, narcissism and the adoption of ultimately destructive forms of leader action.” He goes on to talk about how destructive it is to organizations when people, namely followers, are not encouraged or allowed to offer critical feedback. Ironically, I see this same destructiveness in marriages and families that don’t listen to or allow honest feedback from all members of the family. When family members become silent regarding what is not working well for them it breeds dangerous levels of resentment and bitterness that is sure to show itself down the road in often a destructive manner. Organizations are no different than families when a gag order is placed on people and their complaints. If employees feel pressured to only agree and not be honest with what they disagree with, they will perpetuate the unhealthy grandiose thinking of the leader who has little regard for those below them.
I appreciate the author’s boldness in calling business schools on the carpet and challenging them to stop contributing to the destructive leadership patterns that have become so prevalent. He states, “the dominant approach to the teaching of leadership in business schools contributes to leader narcissism, legitimizes the overconcentration of power in leader hands and promotes rigid control mechanisms without which the dark side of leadership would be much weakened.” I have wondered why it seems we are seeing more and more narcissists pop up in companies, churches, and families, but hearing about the negative influence business schools are having on this epidemic begins to explain some of this. It appears that this dark side has not been recognized and has been promoted as the “transformational” leader we should all aspire to be. Unfortunately, in my practice, I also see the dark side that is experienced by families that are controlled by narcissistic leaders. The tyranny and havoc they reek runs far and wide. One of the core characteristics of a narcissist is that they are not able to see or have empathy for anyone beyond themselves, and because of this they don’t even notice the people they end up running over to get where they want to go. One of the key tools I give family members of narcissists is a list of traits to help them notice what is really going on and how to protect themselves from the destructive behaviors. It was also refreshing to see that the author suggested something similar. “To help cope with the potential problems that can arise from narcissism, corporate stakeholders should be alerted to the need to monitor the discourse of those modern business school graduates who progress to become CEOs, for narcissist-like signs. Perhaps even more importantly from a preventive perspective, business school promotional material about leadership pedagogy should avoid such narrow, perverse marketing messages regarding leadership and should better reflect the breadth and nuance of leadership in action.”
Since this is the world I work in every day I thought it might be helpful or interesting to include the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). NPD is defined as comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by the presence of at least 5 of the following 9 criteria:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement
- Interpersonally exploitive behavior
- A lack of empathy
- Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
- A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
Thankfully an actual diagnosis of NPD is rare (only 6.2% of the population), but many powerful leaders exhibit some of the traits and may likely be an undiagnosed narcissist. Also interesting, of those diagnosed with NPD, 62% are men. Now you are equipped with the same information I have to be on the alert ready to armchair-diagnose potential narcissists you may come in contact with…happy NPD hunting! 🙂