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Narcissism: A Useful Leadership Attribute?

Immediately prior to the recent midterm US elections Donald Trump said this about the candidates he endorsed; "Well, I think if they win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all."

In essence, former President Trump was denying personal responsibility for any failure, yet staking a claim to be credited for any successes.

I was struck by how his statement compared with what Jim Collins revealed about the very best leaders in the very best organisations. In his bestselling book Good to Great, he reported that these extraordinary leaders possess a contrary mindset to that of Trump.

According to Collins, great leaders look in the mirror and accept personal responsibility when things go wrong in their organisations, yet when there is success and triumph, they do not claim the applause and plaudits for themselves, instead pointing to the efforts of others.

I wonder what distortions of ego produce such a blatant avoidance of responsibility as that of Donald Trump, and other avoidant leaders? Sure, you need a strong ego to thrive amidst the challenges of public leadership - a strong sense of self, confidence in your own abilities and decisions, and the capacity to withstand harsh criticism and setbacks. But when do strong ego needs morph into narcissism?

Narcissists are identifiable by their insatiable need to be seen as important. This feeds their belief that anything good that happens is a result of their efforts. Narcissists are also very good at refusing to accept responsibility for negative outcomes that arise from their own actions, instead pointing the finger and blaming others.

It seems to me that narcissism in leadership produces the antithesis of the humble and accountable leadership that Jim Collins spoke of.

What worries me most, and is rather problematic for our society, is that narcissism is a trait that is more prevalent in CEO ranks than in the general population. If that is the case, can we reasonably expect to have humble and accountable leaders in most of these important and influential roles in our communities today? Or is inflated self belief and overly strong ego the price we must pay to have leaders who can withstand the challenges of these big roles?


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