The narcissistic boss can damage the mental health of their employees, undermine the effectiveness of their organisations, and, collectively, threaten the well-being of society. At a moment in history when sane leadership is needed to overcome the daunting challenges we face, it is a measure of the gullibility of the rest of us that we continue to believe that we need mentally disordered individuals to run our most important organisations.
The Narcissistic Boss
In his book Narcissism: Behind the Mask, David Thomas tells the following story of two executives, Harvey and Nathan. For a number of years Harvey hasn’t taken his full holiday entitlement, accumulating over 70 days in unused leave. Nathan, a malignant narcissist, is loathed to be seen as second best to Harvey. To avoid looking inferior, he decides to take holidays without officially recording them. Nathan therefore goes to great lengths to arrange his family holiday within driving distance of the office, so that he can drive into work for ten minutes every day. In this way he justifies to himself his failure to record his time off as annual leave.
David Thomas then recounts how, much later, Nathan reacts furiously on hearing that his fellow executive Harvey has taken a Friday off. He angrily denounces Harvey to a colleague, accusing him of taking too many days off, and implying that Harvey is taking leave to which he isn’t entitled.
This episode shows Nathan using a psychological defence known as projection to protect himself from the shame associated with his own behaviour. The only person to take time off unrecorded, of course, was Nathan, but his own behaviour is projected onto Harvey and transformed into anger at his colleague.
A malignant narcissist makes use of an array of unconscious defence mechanisms – including projection, lying, denial and distortion of facts – to protect themselves from experiencing feelings of inferiority. These automatic unconscious defence mechanisms are triggered every time the narcissist is in a situation where his or her ego is threatened. And these automatic, irrational – and often convincing – responses leave co-workers baffled, battered and bruised.
Nathan’s story also shows just how incredibly difficult it can be for co-workers to understand a narcissist’s behaviour.
As David Thomas writes, ‘All denigrating statements made by a malignant narcissist about his victim have a story behind them. It’s just a matter of understanding the history, the qualities or the possessions of the victim, in order to understand why the narcissist feels inferior and must attack – usually through projection.’
The chances of co-workers having access to their bosses’ history, insecurities, and twisted means of defence, however, are practically nil. As a result, the narcissist’s projections are experienced by co-workers as incomprehensible, unprovoked attacks. Because their defences are unconscious, the narcissist does not recognise what he is doing, rendering any appeal to logic on the part of the victim utterly pointless.
The Unacceptable Costs of Destructive Narcissism
The destructive nature of malignant narcissism means that narcissistic leaders invariably cause tremendous damage – to individuals who work with them, to the organisations that employ them, and to the societies that their organisations are meant to serve.
Individual Costs – Employee Mental Health
Malignant narcissists have a detrimental impact on the mental health of their co-workers. Working for a narcissistic boss whose idea of happiness is self-aggrandisement and denigrating others eventually takes its toll on psychologically normal people.
As Robert Fuller has written, the need for dignity in the workplace is more than a desire for courtesy. It is a reflection of the basic human need for freedom from despotic and arbitrary control. Malignant narcissists however expect others to carry out their every wish without question. Any deviation from this script on the part of employees will result in arbitrary attacks based on projective defences. Malignant narcissists also habitually deny their employees autonomy to make even the most basic decisions, if it suits their personal agenda. The levels of stress which result are extremely high.
Nancy Adler, a professor of medical psychology, writes, ‘The issue for stress is not how many demands you have, but your sense that they are manageable. A demand that you have the resources to deal with – that you have some control over – can actually be invigorating. It’s the difference between a challenge and a threat.’
Malignant narcissists are masters at transforming every new challenge into yet another threat. The result is a working environment in which psychological safety is low, where employees’ have little control over their tasks, where demands change arbitrarily, and where the cost of failure is personal humiliation.
Organisational Costs – Failing Organisations
Malignant narcissists are often recruited to drive organisational performance. Their dominant traits – energy, ambition, the ability to pressurise others into performing – often fit with the organisation’s values. But the malignant narcissist’s behaviour soon takes its toll. Staff attrition, low morale, and poor decision-making eventually impact on organisational performance.
Narcissists do not allow their superiority to be challenged so they surround themselves with people who are prepared to remain subservient to them. Once they are established in a position of authority, subordinates will be forced into silent submission.
The absence of a culture of healthy debate, and an active consideration of alternatives, can have severe consequences for organisations, even when leaders possess great knowledge and expertise. When the leader has a certifiable mental disorder, the costs can be immense. As many psychologists warn, malignant narcissists are not psychologically equipped to consistently make rational, strategic decisions.
David Harvey writes, ‘Narcissists are more concerned with their own image than with the results of their work… A narcissistic leader’s vision consists solely of him being at the top of the organisation, and he will do whatever is necessary to maintain that position, even to the detriment of the team and the organisation.’
It is becoming clear that malignant narcissists make everyday decisions, not on the basis of organisational goals, but on the convoluted logic of a frightened child desperately fighting to avoid the humiliation and shame of being exposed as a worthless fraud.
The fact that narcissistic CEOs continue to command enormous salaries as they preside over the failure of their organisations shows just how difficult it is for the rest of us to see through their convincing charade.
Societal Costs – The Great Uncertainty
In their paper ‘The Great Uncertainty’, Colin Hay and Tony Payne write that humanity is currently facing three major challenges of huge historical importance, all of which are happening simultaneously. These challenges are a crisis in our current model of capitalism, the shifting of economic power away from the west, and the threat of global warming. Each of these processes is historically unprecedented and each presents enormous challenges to our systems of national and international governance.
Our current model of capitalism is designed to enrich a few at the expense of the many, and has wrought havoc with the environment and with global biodiversity. The rise of developing economies is seen by many in the West as a threat to their hegemony, to be resisted at any cost. And actions to address the existential threat of climate change are stymied by many who cling to their wealth, at the potential cost of planetary destruction.
The solutions to these global challenges, if any solutions exist, will require unparalleled levels of international cooperation. They will require leaders who can put the interests of future generations ahead of their own narrow national interests, and far beyond their own personal interests.
Malignant narcissism exists because of a malfunction of nature and nurture. It results in an adult with a fragile sense of self-worth that must be protected at all costs – costs that are paid by their co-workers, their organisations and by wider society.
Having narcissistic bosses in positions of power at this critical time in human history is a recipe for global catastrophe. Given the immensity of what is at stake, their destructive influence is something we must rapidly overcome.
 Quoted in All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies and the Politics of Dignity, Robert W. Fuller, Berrett-Koehler, 2006, p97
 Narcissism: Behind the Mask, David Thomas, Book Guild Publishing, 2010, p56