There’s an elephant in the C-suite. CEOs and others with narcissistic tendencies and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are running the show and have been for years, and we’re not saying a darn thing about it. As shareholders and board members we’ve been silent. Others on the sideline include analysts, VCs, and the colleagues and mentors of those who exhibit narcissistic tendencies.

CEO Narcissism

Enter the 2017 presidential election, and we as a nation elected a candidate with classic narcissistic traits as leader of the free world. That decision made sense for a lot of reasons, the least of which was a promise to follow through on a very specific agenda for our nation (an agenda vastly different from that of the incumbent party). We were still hungry for “hope and change,” but now in the form of draining the swamp, stopping endless foreign wars, and Making America Great Again.

The result has been what may be described as a transactional presidency for members of the GOP — they get the judges, social policy, and the stance on globalism they’ve wanted for years, and to the victors of that election rightly go the spoils. In the meantime, we can expect more national and international drama, more gridlock, and a continuation of the revolving door of the cabinet members and key staff.

Has the fact that the leader of the free world is permitted to engage in narcissistic behaviors emboldened the board room to ignore the same at the companies they’re entrusted with? Because if that guy can get away with it, why too can’t our CEO? After all, if the  economy continues to hum, it’s easy to overlook the dysfunctional characteristics of the leader in charge, and perhaps the same is true at your organization. Perhaps quarterly and annual profits are through the roof, increasing shareholder value by leaps and bounds.

But at what cost? 

In business and politics, narcissists aren’t all bad. They’re often the movers and the shakers — the individuals responsible for starting many of the businesses and organizations that drive progress. However, they are also responsible for a good deal of the dysfunction in business and politics. When we look at the cost of having narcissistic individuals in leadership positions, it is typically in terms of long-term costs. While a narcissist may be the best person qualified to start an organization, he or she is rarely the best qualified to continue running it or setting the tone in terms of the organization’s culture.

Even if a business is meeting or beating its quarterly and annual profit targets, it may be paying a heavy price in the following ways:

  • High turnover
  • Inability to attract and retain top talent
  • Lack of innovation — ideas are adopted based not on merit but on what leadership champions
  • Poor management — failure to promote the most intelligent, independent thinkers due to leadership feeling threatened by them
  • Diminished productivity — due to reduced employee loyalty
  • Chronic chaos and uncertainty

The point here is simple… the mental health of your organization should matter just as much as your profit margins and margins for failure do. The mental health of your leader should matter just as much as the rest of your management and market does. And the mental health of your leader should matter just as much as your methods do.

If your leader’s underlying thoughts, words, and behaviors don’t align with your corporate values, then something’s terribly wrong at your firm.

How to spot a C-level narcissist

Not sure if your organization’s leader is exhibiting narcissistic tendencies? Here’s a list of what to look for when making that initial determination:

  1. They blame everyone but themselves for almost everything: personally, and professionally. They rarely or never apologize.
  2. They give either the “silent treatment” or respond in rage to many scenarios as a means of exerting power and control.
  3. Their personal/home/family lives are usually in a state of chaos as well, but you may never know it because of their need to posture the perfect life away from the office.
  4. They belittle and humiliate their staff, teams, and any other employees within the organization.
  5. They demand respect even if not deserved.
  6. The majority of them are grandiose, flaunting and bragging about any aspect of their being: educational background/awards/recognition and even their suits! (the “Gucci” narcissist).
  7. They are extremely status conscious and have carefully constructed a public façade to project the desired status.
  8. The physical layout and artifacts in their offices contain photos and awards on the walls aimed at impressing. Even the books and magazines are strategically selected and placed for recognition. They live for approval.
  9. They are very self-centered and low on empathy.
  10. They are often “loners” and hide out in their offices as opposed to managing by “walking around,” and when they do walk around, they act in ways that are inauthentic — ensuring everyone sees them and sees them in the best of light.
  11. They have trouble “handing over the mike” to anyone and seemingly enjoy “hearing their own voice.”
  12. They believe that their colleagues, employees, and team members are all good or all bad (splitting). They base their own self-image on how they see these other people as well.
  13. They have long-standing fears of being “exposed” and publicly humiliated as a fraud.
  14. They are highly competitive people whose main method of making themselves feel better is to demean and destroy others.
  15. They feel corrosive jealousy of others within the organization who have what they want. (This can occur at any level and can entail both intangible and tangible items.)
  16. They have self-hatred, fear of failure, and a deep sense of personal inadequacy which cause them to resent other people’s successes.
  17. They enjoy watching and experiencing other’s discomfort.
  18. They want to be universally admired by employees and clients alike.
  19. They humiliate and diminish others within the firm in attempt to feel better about themselves.
  20. They are extremely sensitive to slights.
  21. All relationships are based on usefulness.
  22. They are perfectionists in an attempt to protect themselves from internal and external attacks.
  23. Their goal is to attain high status; maintain feelings of being special, entitled, and perfect; and get admiration and recognition from others.
  24. They have trouble working with others if they are expected to treat them as equals.
  25. They typically associate themselves with high-status clients and other people in general.
  26. Their biggest fear is being called or considered “average.”
  27. They are willing to devote enormous energy to causes, as long as their work or financial contribution puts them in the spotlight.
  28. They thrive on details to reinforce their sense of being special, perfect, unique, and entitled.
  29. They manufacture crises, so they can resolve the crises and appear the hero.

Most, if not all, of these characteristics are a result of underlying insecurities.

Taking action

Unfortunately, people with narcissistic tendencies have insecurities that discourage them from seeking help on their own. They need to be convinced or compelled by an external force or circumstance to obtain the help they need.

The first step is to determine whether a problem exists. In a case of suspected narcissism of a CEO, this responsibility rests with the board of directors. The board should choose an unbiased third-party executive coach to perform a thorough evaluation of the organization, which will reveal whether the CEO or some other cause is at the root of the organization’s dysfunction.

If the CEO is the problem, and if the problem is his or her narcissistic tendencies, then that problem needs to be addressed — either by replacing the CEO or providing the coaching and/or therapy the CEO needs to overcome his or her insecurities and place the organization’s needs first and foremost.


About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.