CEO Insider

Narcissistic Team Leaders – How a Lack of Checks and Balances Tip the Scale of Culture

Research shows that narcissists tend to be attracted to leadership positions as they are positions of power, so they need to learn how to balance selfishness with selflessness. Narcissistic leaders’ self-centered personalities not only disrupt organizational culture, but they can also derail an organization and leave it unviable. 

Let’s define narcissism. The type we’re speaking of is “grandiose narcissism,” which is characterized by high self-esteem, self-centeredness, a tendency to overestimate one’s abilities, low empathy, exaggerated importance, entitlement, and disagreeableness. This leads to unethical and destructive leadership tendencies. 

Narcissistic leaders who lack balance fail to create a safe culture for their team to thrive. They lack selflessness and the ability to balance power with empowerment.

Be aware of the following issues that can indicate a narcissistic organizational leader. 

  1. Dissolution of trust.
    Positive leadership is directly tied to trust. It indicates how well employees feel about working for the organization. If leaders don’t maintain their team’s trust, the organization will see low productivity, high turnover, low morale, absenteeism, and more negatives that erode positive culture and make it difficult to build a sustainable organization.

    Narcissistic leaders also erode the trust of other shareholders, including customers/clients and stakeholders. These vital shareholders, along with the team, are what give an organization a reason for existing. Losing their trust means losing the capital that drives the organization forward. Culture degrades as narcissistic leaders put themselves first rather than their team or organization.

  2. Unethical behavior.
    Acting immorally stems from a narcissist’s selfish and entitled behavior. Leaders should be committed to their organization and team by doing their best to keep that organization viable for all shareholders to benefit. Behaviors that undermine this ethic are immoral.

    In addition, immoral behavior by a leader will breed immoral behavior among employees. Research shows that leaders not only set the tone for organizational culture, but that unethical leaders will create unethical employees. If the leader is perceived to be unethical, it’s more likely that employees will steal, lie, cheat, and add to the toxic culture. 

  3. Inaccurate perception of others.
    Because narcissism typically includes an element of inflated self-esteem and low confidence in others, narcissists tend to believe they understand what others feel, need, and value inaccurately. They don’t value the diversity of opinions and thought, believing that they know best about everything. Self-centeredness fails to empower and motivate employees. Instead, it devalues them. Employees are regarded only as cogs in the machine.

    Narcissistic leaders lack emotional intelligence for themselves and others, while at the same time believing they have excellent social skills. Narcissists overestimate their abilities and have difficulty recognizing the abilities of others. They often use manipulation as their go-to tactic to get what they want, which leads to the degradation of the organization.

With true emotional intelligence, narcissistic leaders can learn to balance their selfish tendencies with selflessness as they learn to accurately understand themselves, others, and how they relate to others. The leaders who are able to achieve this balance between their narcissistic tendencies and supporting and motivating team members are able to build strong measures of trust and confidence. 

Balanced leaders have successful organizations because team members are empowered and motivated, and organizational culture is built on support, trust, and fairness.


Written by Brian Smith.
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Why self-awareness is your best friend & 4 tips to get better at it by Roxanne Calder.

Brian Smith, PhD
Brian Smith, PhD, is founder and senior managing partner of IA Business Advisors, a management consulting firm that has worked with more than 18,000 CEOs, entrepreneurs, managers, and employees worldwide. Together with his daughter, Mary Griffin, he has authored his latest book, Individual Influence: Find the “I” in Team (July 19, 2022), which shares how to become our best self with everyone we influence.


Brian Smith, PhD is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.