Being labeled a narcissist would rarely be considered a compliment. Narcissism is an inflated sense of self, extreme self-focus and self-importance. The word originates from Greek mythology where a young Narcissus fell in love with his own image.
Think of a leader with high sense of entitlement, constantly craving for admiration, considering himself the best or top professional in his domain, constantly talking about the great things he has done for the organization, society and others around him. He flaunts his success in your face, blows his trumpet, wants you to listen to his ideas, great work he has done and appreciate them without challenging.
We have all seen or worked with people like this at one point of time or other. I have known a narcissist leader close up. After few months, working with him became a torture – listening to the pompous stories and ideas – day in and day out. At times, his relentless self-focus and self- importance drove me crazy. The only consolation was the look of desperation in others eyes as well, the fact that I was not alone. Unwittingly, he also bred a pool of sycophants.
Life moves on, after couple of years, we parted ways. Some years later, I got to work closely with another leader, who undoubtedly had strong streaks of narcissism in him. But, I enjoyed working with him, and grabbed opportunities to work with him on different assignments. I was not an exception, despite his being a narcissist, he had an engaged team; several people even outside his team wanted to work with him.
I often wondered about the difference between these two leaders; while both were narcissists; they had completely different impact on others including their team members. What made them different? I could not pin-point the reason, till I read a research paper by Owens, Wallace and Waldman (2015) on how humility can have a counter-balancing effect on narcissism.
Humility in leaders is manifested in several behaviors such as spotting strengths in others, inviting them to contribute, listening to their ideas with an open mind, accepting or building on other’s ideas if found better, acknowledging other’s contributions publicly, sharing spotlight and key assignments with others. In essence humility enables the leader to move the focus from self to others. Interestingly, this seems paradoxical – narcissism and humility are at two ends of a spectrum. But this leader made it possible, narcissism when tempered with the opposite trait of humility gave him the best of both! The unique blend of opposites made him a leader that he was and resulted in very positive outcomes.
So, what’s the learning? We all have streaks of narcissism in us, only extent varies. We run the risk of increasing narcissism with success, or even with unacknowledged failures. It’s possible to dilute its negative effects by moderating it with an opposite trait – humility.