From Humble Leader to Narcissist: Where Are You on the Continuum?

02 Mar

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By Lee Ellis

Typically, narcissism is historically associated with physical beauty. You may recall that in Greek mythology, Narcissus was the handsome young man who became so enchanted with the image of himself in the pool that he could not pull away. Today we hear about a leader who has narcissistic tendencies, but it’s not so much about their physical beauty as their strong, offensive ego.

Before dismissing this diagnosis as impossible in your own leadership, Psychology Today describes the full blown disorder this way –

Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration–all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding….and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.”

Sliding Out of Balance

Actually, it’s my observation that many leaders have some inclination to slide out of balance into narcissism [Tweet This].

Consider some of these leadership strengths and what happens when they get too strong –

  • Confident – Self-centered, talk mainly about their agenda, discount others
  • Decisive – Opinionated–sometimes wrong but never in doubt
  • Initiating – Too aggressive to get what they want
  • Outgoing – Need to be the center of attention
  • Accurate – React strongly to constructive feedback
  • Take charge – Controlling, believing that they are smarter, superior
  • Strategic – Manipulative of others to get what they want
  • Logical and Objective – Insensitive to the feelings and needs of others
  • Visionary – Blame others when something goes wrong

Now if you have a strong, confident personality, you may lack self-awareness of these unbalanced traits when you look in the mirror, but others notice them. To avoid acquiring a full-blown case of NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), evaluate how many of these struggles show up in your thoughts and behavior and imagine how others experience you.

My Own Self-Awareness

You may wonder how I can be so “decisive and confident” in making these assertions. Aside from using and doing research with personality/behavioral assessments for 30 years, I have several of the strengths above and some of my closest friends do too. Confidentially, my friends and I share some of our narcissistic struggles with each other.

But like most people, strong personalities can swing from feelings of high confidence to insecurity several times a day.

The Opposite Side of the Spectrum

Recently in a leadership development training event, one leader who was outwardly the opposite of many of these strong characteristics was singled out for his leadership excellence. In the discussion, some of his more ego-driven peers encouraged the more humble leader to actively promote himself, saying that many of his achievements were often going unnoticed. Basically, his peers’ “decisive and confident” advice was to blow his own horn more so that others would take notice.

In reflecting on this experience, I came to the conclusion that the whole issue of outward ego strength could be put on a visual continuum – at least for purposes of discussion:

Low self-esteem < Passive < Humble — Balanced > Strong ego > Arrogant > Narcissist

Based on past experience, I would expect the following division in the general population [Tweet This] –

  • 1/3 lean toward a strong ego even egotistical.
  • 1/3 lean toward a reticent or quiet ego.
  • 1/3 are more balanced.

Since it’s part of our natural DNA behavior at birth, we don’t have much control of where we land on this continuum (other than occasional exceptions resulting from tragic life experiences). You may think there is some advantage to being on one side or the other, but both have their strengths and struggles. You can be a great leader from either side.

Maximizing Strengths, Minimizing Struggles

Regardless of where you are on this continuum, you can be a great leader. How can you coach yourself to maximize your strengths and minimize your struggles? Here are three valuable tips:

  1. Gain more self-awareness of how others see you. What traits can you do more or less of to be more effective?
  1. If you’re humble and reticent –
  • Believe in yourself and the value you bring to the table and assert yourself into situations.
  • Speak up to share your insights and ideas. Challenge issues when you disagree.
  • Stretch and take on high profile challenges that match your natural talents.
  1. If you naturally have a strong ego –
  • Solicit input and practice active listening.
  • Set aside your agenda and become more aware of the other person’s feelings and your own feelings in the moment.
  • Consider how you can affirm, encourage, and support others.

We all have the opportunity and responsibility to lead others in becoming a more balanced leader. Abraham Lincoln has been called our greatest president and is an interesting example in this discussion. You can read more about his leadership balance in this case study. Whatever you do, choose to be a balanced, honorable leader!


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Leading with Honor Case Study What were the leadership attributes that enabled President Abraham Lincoln to balance both getting results and nurturing relationships? Did you know that 40% of the population leans towards results-oriented behaviors, another 40% lean toward relationships-oriented behaviors, and the remaining 20% are somewhere in between? If you’ve ever encountered a leader that was heavily focused on work and getting results without a lot of social interaction, you’ve experienced an out-of-balance, results-oriented leader!

Download a free copy of Lee Ellis’ “Leadership Balance Case Study” to learn more about balancing these two areas in your own leadership.

1 Comment

Posted by on March 2, 2016 in Uncategorized


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One response to “From Humble Leader to Narcissist: Where Are You on the Continuum?

  1. ramakrishnan6002

    March 21, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.


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