Are you a narcissist? See if you have the characteristics. Examine how narcissism can affect leaders and see what can be done to mitigate the tendencies.
As a physician leader, you have the power to create an environment that allows people to grow and give their best. On the other hand, you also have the power to create a toxic environment that stifles, confuses and frustrates the people around you.
The environment you create is very much dependent on you, the person. There is an adage that says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” This speaks to the fact that you take all of who you are to work every day, and not just your professional knowledge, skills, abilities and experience — but your personality as well.
Every personality has its strengths, and it is important that we employ the strengths of our personality. However, it is a simple fact that many times those very strengths, when amplified, can become toxic. This is never truer than in the case of a narcissist personality.
Ego Out of Control
Our fictional Dr. Agarwal is a division chief of obstetrics and gynecology at a major Midwestern hospital system. He is tall, well-dressed and friendly. He is very outgoing, easy to talk to and opens up quickly to others — his patients love him. He is very charismatic, albeit in a somewhat seductive manner, and his confidence is evident upon meeting him for the first time.
Agarwal is “a man with a plan” and has a compelling vision of what his department can be. In this regard, he is determined to leave a legacy behind — and is willing to cut some corners to do so. He is considered, by the leadership team, to have a promising future, which suits his desire to become chief executive officer eventually. However, lately, people around him are starting to have doubts about whether he is the right person to take on more leadership responsibility.
For all his strengths, Agarwal is showing some disturbing tendencies. He is demanding when he wants something from others and shows no concern for their needs in return — except when it serves his purposes.
People who work with him on a daily basis view him as a “user” as he constantly tries to manipulate people to get his way. Everything is about him. He is very self-absorbed and has an exaggerated sense of entitlement. When it is brought to his attention that he has stepped on someone’s feelings, he is unremorseful. As a matter of fact, no one has ever heard him offer a genuine apology when he has offended someone.
He exudes an air of superiority that — while coming across as self-confidence to those who do not know him well — can be irritating to those who must endure it on a daily basis. He has rigidly high standards; he wants things done his way or no way at all.
Indeed, Agarwal lives in a binary world where you are either “ with” or “against” him, and if he thinks you are against him, beware his wrath.
Agarwal illustrates the dual nature of the narcissistic personality. Narcissists have much strength when it comes to leadership. They are often innovators and experts in their industry, with dynamic dreams of what can be, and they can attract followers with their magnetic personalities and persuasive rhetoric.
They believe that their words can move mountains and they are known to inspire people to help shape the future they envision. However, as with any strong personality types, their strengths can mask a dark side.
The term “narcissism” hails from Greek mythology’s tale of Narcissus, who was doomed to eternally fall in love with his own image in a mountain pool as punishment for refusing to accept an offer of love by Echo, a young mountain nymph.
Narcissists are driven to attain something they can never have: the perfect image (i.e., recognition, status, or being envied). This leads to a cycle of self-absorption that, if not checked, results in the kind of behavior that undermines the very success they want — and to which they believe they are entitled.
One particularly negative aspect of the narcissistic leader is his disinterest in developing others. Coaching and mentoring are a means of empowering others, but it is difficult to grow the capabilities of peers and direct reports when you are your only priority.
Even when a narcissist does try to “coach,” he typically wants others to be a pale reflection of himself and does more telling than coaching. Furthermore, narcissists are relentless (and sometimes ruthless) in their pursuit of victory, which leads to another reason they shy away from coaching others: They do not want the competition.
All successful leaders have a competitive streak and want to win, but the more narcissistic tendencies you have, the less you will mentor and coach.
Is this you?
Here is a set of characteristics that are typical of the narcissistic personality. Read through the items and check off any that apply to you. Only check off an item if it occurs more often than not.
- Are you self-absorbed and act like everything is all about you?
- Do you feel so entitled that you make or break the rules as you see fit?
- Do you demean others by bullying or putting them down?
- Are you demanding by expecting to get whatever you want?
- Are you suspicious of the motives of others when they are nice to you?
- Are you perfectionistic and want things done your way or no way?
- Do you feel superior and are somewhat snobbish?
- Do you crave praise and recognition?
- Are you uninterested in understanding yourself and others?
- Do you find it almost impossible to offer a genuine apology?
- Do you get overly consumed with details and minutiae?
- Do you steer clear of feelings?
Narcissism exists along a spectrum. If you checked at least nine of the items, you have placed yourself at the most narcissistic end of the spectrum. A lesser number of items place you further down the continuum.
What can you do?
- Remember that a certain amount of narcissism is healthy. There is nothing wrong with having some narcissistic tendencies. It is a common characteristic among leaders and especially among men.
- Find a trusted sidekick. Develop a close relationship with one person; someone who can act as an anchor and keep you grounded in reality so that your natural suspiciousness and egocentric viewpoint does not dominate your decisions.
- Recognize your limitations. Learn to listen to the advice and warnings of the people around you. You cannot do it all alone.
- Practice self-management. Learn to think before acting. Your first impulse is not always the best.
- Develop others to further your goals. Keep in mind that others can learn from you and, in the long run, your victories depend on how good your team is.
- Get a coach. Work with a coach who can help you develop increased self-awareness to better control your moods, emotions, drives and maximize your positive effect on others.
- Remember the prize. Don’t let your self-interest and ego dominate to the point that you lose the very thing you desire: success.
Robert Hicks is a licensed psychologist and a clinical professor of organizational behavior and founding director of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center.