Always avoid blindly following the whims of a big personality
Much advice on leadership focuses on the benefits of strong leadership. But actually having a good leader is another matter: many employees regularly come face-to-face with leaders whose egos take centre stage, so-called narcissistic leaders. In 2004, psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby wrote an essay for Harvard Business Review on the cons – and pros – of these bosses. Of course, he was still writing at a time when larger-than-life chief executives were in vogue, often leading visionary internet-based firms. Superstar bosses inspired employees and grew companies. But things aren’t so clearcut these days, and it’s worth acknowledging the dark side of big personalities. Sigmund Freud defined the narcissist as untrustworthy, and emotionally isolated and unstable – a toxic combination of charm and charisma, with an unhealthy disrespect for others. But if you have to work for someone like this, what’s the best way of approaching them?
Find out what you are dealing with
Narcissistic leaders will often take action without asking for the opinion of others. Ultimately, they do not value any opinion other than their own, and will often display characteristics such as talking far more than they listen. Obviously, these traits can be found in everyone, so don’t jump to conclusions. But if you find your boss making important decisions in your remit without consulting you, be alert. Take time to find out what he or she thinks before putting forward your own view. If you think they’re wrong, appeal to their personality by demonstrating how the value of a different approach could be in their interest.
Stick with your moral compass
Those with narcissistic tendencies can initially display very attractive characteristics, and often show strong leadership. Their gravitas and power to persuade is why they interview well for leadership positions, and ultimately results in employees following their lead. But if you find your leader requiring you to do things you feel uncomfortable with, don’t be afraid to question the demand. Blindly following a superior’s request does not guarantee your path to progression, and will more often than not leave you facing blame if things go pear-shaped.
Following comes with responsibilities
A narcissistic leader may well be good at initially charming followers. But if you are the first to notice that they are perhaps influencing others in an unethical manner, or giving out an unrealistic workload, and your attempts to directly challenge them have failed, seek advice within your organisation. Turn to your HR department or even your boss’s superior.
Get a new job
Because narcissists value their own opinion far above anyone else’s, a leader with these tendencies may be impossible to reason with. If you have had to challenge their decisions, or spent a lot of time building your own self-esteem in the absence of support, the emotional toll may make your job difficult. Dealing with someone who constantly discounts your opinion can make you less convinced of your ability and future prospects. Don’t rule out moving on.
Birgit Schyns is professor of organisational behaviour at Durham University Business School.
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