Friday, July 23, 2010

The Impact of Narcissism on Leadership and Sustainability
Bruce Gregory, Ph.D.
© 1999

In our society, the self focus known as narcissism interferes with and ultimately undermines leadership and efforts towards sustainability. This chapter will define the problem, address some of the skills necessary to interface effectively and proactively with individuals exhibiting narcissism, and offer alternatives for positive transformations and sustainability.

About Bruce Gregory


As we explore ways of achieving sustainability on a variety of levels, it can be instructive to consider, understand and appreciate some of the forces which hinder its realization. While sustainability utilizes mutual respect and an attitude of cooperation which maximizes the appreciation of resources, other forces work from almost polar opposite premises. These forces operate on both intrapersonal and interpersonal levels. For the purposes of this chapter we focus primarily on interpersonal dynamics, because it is at the interpersonal and group levels that the consequences of these forces are most devastating to realizing sustainability. However, to be comprehensive we shall include briefly how intrapersonal dynamics influence issues relative to sustainability.

One of the main forces opposing efforts to achieve sustainability is narcissism, and narcissistic defenses. Both are often misunderstood and unrecognized as they undermine efforts at promoting sustainability. These forces are universal, and exist in almost all organizations in some form. They are effective for three main reasons; first, they are unrecognized; second, people are unprepared mentally and emotionally to deal with them; and lastly people under appreciate the dynamics of empowerment.

Twenty years ago when one heard the phrase "he or she is so narcissistic" people would be reminded of the Greek story of Narcissus staring at his own reflection in a pool of water. Since that time through the work of Heinz Kohut, James Masterson, Robert Johnson and others we have gained a much more thorough understanding of narcissism, its manifestations, dynamics, and its consequences in interpersonal settings. It is important to understand and appreciate that these dynamics operate the same whether they are in the private, work or public sectors.

Below is a chart which summarizes the parts of the narcissistic self. The pie chart can be an effective tool in gaining a working understanding of narcissistic defenses because it breaks the defense into components. This is important because the parts represent the exact opposite of what narcissism is addicted to: a complete domination over whatever space or situation it finds itself, which serves as an affirmation of its grandiosity and its all powerful nature.

In order to appreciate the resources and commitment necessary to neutralize narcissism's sabotage of efforts to achieve sustainability, it is important to understand how narcissism is related to other aspects of the self inside of each individual. Although they may be called by different names by different branches of the psychological world, there are basically four parts of the self. First is the core self, which is the part of the self that contains a person's resources, such as trust, patience curiosity, determination, courage, the ability to discriminate, frustration tolerance, etc. Second is the real self, that part of the self that generates feelings such as joy, love, anger, sadness, frustration, fear, etc. Third is the false self that contains and maintains defenses that generally reflect different aspects of the fear of being real. These include, but are not limited to, the defenses of projection, avoidance, acting out, withdrawal, withholding and intellectualization. Narcissism, the fourth part of the self, is also a defense complex. It is another aspect of the false self, but it doesn't present fear on the surface, even though fear is the driving force at its core.

On the surface narcissism presents so the individual appears as confident and entitled. NARCISSISM loves and demands attention to reinforce its grandiosity. It needs to dominate and control the "space," to be "more special" than anyone else. It also needs perfection and immediate gratification to satisfy its all powerful aspect of its grandiosity. As a result, inside the individual, the narcissism feels extremely arrogant.

However, underneath the surface narcissism is fragile. Disappointment and frustration threaten its grandiosity, leaving it vulnerable to feelings of shame and humiliation exacerbated by its harsh, punitive component. Along with the shame and humiliation come deep fears of annihilation which are fueled by the black and white, rigid thinking component: "if I am not perfect and all powerful, then I am nothing." The extreme fear of being found out to not be omnipotent requires the narcissism to resort to hiding its deeper nature. This act of hiding ultimately leaves the narcissistic self vulnerable to forces that have trust at their core, not fear.



The roots of the narcissistic self are both developmental and genetic. Developmentally, nature provides the infant for approximately its first eighteen months of life with the narcissistic defense. This defense provides a safe way for the infant to experience the world, shielding her from an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, helplessness and dependence that is present during this stage of life. In its place the young human being experiences being the center of the world, experiences being one with her mother, and experiences being all-powerful.

These experiences provides a sense of grandiosity which facilitates and sustains the infant's sense that there are no limits in his world. Towards the end of the eighteen month period nature initiates a psychological transformation whereupon the infant's experience of oneness with the mother begins to disintegrate, activating the separation phase commonly known as the "terrible twos". Depending on a number of factors which include but are not necessarily limited to the mother's ability to be responsive and sensitive to her child's needs during this period, the limits and consequences provided by the parents between the ages of two and ten, and the degree of abuse the child is exposed to in the first seven years of her life the narcissistic defense will be more or less integrated within her being, and will not exercise a dominant role in her experience or behavior, leaving only the purely genetic of the narcissistic self.

This purely genetic component has been better understood by eastern psychology, especially Tibetan Buddhism, than by western psychology. Buddhist psychology calls this component the ego. The term is meant to represent the part of the self that thinks it is "the greatest" and the "smartest," so smart that it can get away with things, especially fooling people with regard to its intent, and masking the depths of fear which permeate its core. Further, the ego thinks of itself as so powerful that it thinks it can exercise a kind of control theoretically available only to divine forces. These experiences are also part of the infant's world, but here the emphasis is more on "greatest," "smartest" and control.

The Buddhist's use of the term ego is significantly different from Western usage, which actually varies depending on the group using the term. For example Jungians use the term to reflect the personality part of the self, and Freudians use it to represent the part that mediates reality.

There is another additional aspect of appreciating the ego that is relevant to the understanding of the relationship between narcissism and sustainability. This is the treatment of the ego; giving the ego certain kinds of consistent, sensitive attention and guidance helps to facilitate a healing of the split between eastern and western cultures. Both western and eastern cultures have felt alienated from and superior to each other. It is the ego, hiding deep inside the core of the narcissistic self that aids and sustains this division through its rigid demand that its way, whether it is the east's honoring of being or the west's addiction to doing. Sustainability advocates balance, which is facilitated by the reorganization of the ego's influence on a person's experience and behavior.


How do these developmental and genetic factors which become dominant aspects of both individuals' and groups' consciousness and behaviors interfere with efforts at sustainability? The narcissistic defense seeks to dominate every space in which it participates – both on individual and group levels. This force of narcissism is interested in, committed to, and obsessed with power and control, and it will sacrifice people and resources indiscriminately. The narcissistic defense interferes by stonewalling, intimidating, and dominating attention in group settings.

NARCISSISM is distinguished from true leadership (which shares attention) by narcissism’s use, abuse and exploitation of people, as opposed to enhancing and facilitating the value of others. Sustainability is dependent on collaborative, mutually complementary group efforts that seek to maximize benefits for the largest amount of people without exploiting each other or the integrity of the environment. This is offensive to narcissism because it is in direct contradiction to narcissism’s values of dominance, exploitation and control.

So what does narcissism do in the presence of sustainability proponents? It resists. It resists in a methodical, calculated way toward the end of either distracting, derailing, or simply stopping whatever program the sustainability contingent is seeking to implement. Character assassination, misinformation, and blocking access to funding and other resources are commonly employed methods.

Before we discuss how narcissism can be detected and engaged effectively, it is important to review factors which contribute to narcissism being able to effectively control situations and relationships. First, if a person or a group is unaware of his or its narcissism, they will often be unable to recognize the presence of a narcissistic force. It is a well known dynamic in most psychological circles that if one is denying or cut off from an aspect of the self, it is very difficult position to recognize this aspect in others.

Second, many people have the fantasy that if they try hard, "do it right," be reasonable, logical, and have goodwill and a team approach, these factors will generate a positive outcome in interpersonal or group settings. This is about as deep a fantasy as one could possibly have, as it is not based in reality. Why is this? It is not based in reality because a narcissist survival is dependent on having control, or the perception of control. When a narcissist's control is challenged (and this is what efforts toward sustainability do by definition), he becomes threatened, and responds like his survival is at stake, transforming the environment into a veritable jungle. This is not the friendly environment of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood! In addition narcissism is disdainful of such attitudes (fantasies).

A third factor which reinforces the stranglehold narcissism can have is when people are committed to being "nice" or fair, and as a result are unwilling or unprepared to hold the narcissist accountable for positions or behaviors. Finally, an unwillingness to "go for the throat," as champions do in sporting events, only allows narcissism to recycle and feed off its commitment to domination.


When the narcissistic defense is operating in an interpersonal or group setting, the grandiose part does not show its face in public. In public it presents a front of patience, congeniality, and confident reasonableness. However, beneath the surface it is supremely smug and superior. It is confident it can deceive the "fools" or their objective it is committed to blocking, while maintaining its own control and dominance over either the rules, and/or the flow of events.

It is critical to understand that the narcissistic defense is addicted to power and control. It, the defense, and they, the people who are controlled and possessed by the defense, must have power. The addict in the private sector gains power by instantaneously gratifying his needs through drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling. The addict, or the person or group dominated by the narcissist, gains and holds power by dominating and controlling the flow of information, the rules, and the processes for participating in life.

One of the best places to spot narcissism, unfortunately, is at the top of a company or a public organization. The narcissism can be detected by being sensitive to resistance from the top. The top, or the person or persons at the top, will resist efforts toward change in process or structure. The resistance is communicated through a variety of techniques: always needing more information, appearing confused or having a lack of clarity; excuses; premeditated "blowups" or other distractions from whatever the issues being considered. A common example is as follows: a position needs to be filled in order for an important project to move forward. The boss, preferring control over progress and efficiency, delays and delays the hiring of the new executive, consistently finding something wrong with either the candidates or the search firm.

Another common sign of narcissism is the experience of pressure. This pressure comes from the unrelenting demand for perfection which is necessary to the narcissism if the grandiosity and illusion of omnipotence is to be maintained. The employee or group member will feel pressure either to conform, or to continue producing until exhaustion. The pressure is unpleasant and contains the negative expectation that people can't meet objectives through their own resources and cooperative participation without pressure from above. It devalues pride of accomplishment, commitment, and capacity to follow through and complete tasks.

When narcissism perceives that it could lose control of a situation or process, it often feels threatened. The grandiosity's sense of omnipotence is being threatened. When this happens, narcissism's response can be one of character assassination of those who are threatening its objectives. The presence of character assassination is another way of detecting the presence of narcissism.

There is another important way to recognize narcissism. Narcissism is often contained in language through the use of "I". If a person listens carefully to another's use of "I" one can detect the grandiosity inside, the part speaking for the whole.


Recognizing the presence of narcissistic forces is an important aspect of the transformational process. Moving to the next phase, interacting effectively with narcissistic forces, involves a number of important factors which include: awareness of and freedom from victim complexes, freedom from being intimidated, skills to deal with intimidation efforts, excellent emotional boundaries, accountability skills, skills for building consensus with others in the group, empowering others, and a highly developed inner ability to tolerate frustration and anxiety.

Most people feel victimized by narcissistic forces and narcissists. This is because they have felt consistently oppressed, suppressed, or frustrated by narcissistic forces (e.g. bosses, companies, owners, partners, religious organizations, governments). This becomes problematic in terms of achieving sustainability. When one is in a "victim state," one sees the oppressor as the enemy, as the one with the power, and as a result, the victim is easily manipulated into frustration and anger. The narcissist will utilize this dynamic to incite people into emotional states which can be exploited into distractions from the core issues.

Victim states can be detected by the accent the person puts on "they, them, he or she", which conveys that the other is bad. The most debilitating component of victimhood in terms of sustainability and transformation is that the victim perceives the power as being in the other and outside of oneself. This is in direct opposition to a principle tenet of sustainability that power is shared, and essential power is achieved through collaboration, not dominance.

Narcissistic forces are also critical; they can be harsh in their judgments of anything short of perfection. They can be bullying and abusive in their verbal criticism, daring others to challenge their destructive communication tactics. Their underlying message contains some or all of the following: "I can intimidate you anytime I want. You are afraid to stand up to me, to challenge me. You are weak and spineless. Sometimes I will say something that I know is completely untrue or bullshit just to prove that you won't challenge me." Intimidation is used like a large boulder on a mountain road, saying "deal with me, or go down the mountain, and forget going ahead. I am the roadblock through which you must go."


Skills for dealing with attempts to intimidate can be divided into two areas, intrapersonal and interpersonal. Intrapersonally, it is essential not to react. This means that reactions of fear, impatience, or anger are not practical. In their place should be patience and curiosity. On an interpersonal level, responses and questions like, "that's interesting; could you explain that?; or, "I am not clear about that; would you please clarify (or elaborate)?; or, "it seems like there is a contradiction in your logic." All of these can generate positive results in terms of reducing the control of the narcissistic forces. This is done through the non-reaction, which communicates, "you are not so powerful that you can manipulate me, or us, and distract us from the issue. It is also done through the questions which communicate, "I/we are not afraid of you; we are not leaving the space/situation to your control alone; we will challenge you if necessary; you cannot win through intimidation or disinformation."

Excellent individual emotional boundaries are so critical for dealing with narcissism. These emotional boundaries prevent the force of the narcissism emotions from throwing an individual off balance. The emotional boundaries are also helpful in not taking the narcissism's actions or positions personally. The narcissism, consumed and driven by the grandiosity, feels responsible for everything; therefore, all failures, frustrations, and disappointments are its fault, and are directed personally at it. In interacting with narcissism, one does not want to fall into the narcissist's world and take what is going on personally. Narcissism's actions are indiscriminate. They are directed toward any object, person or group that threatens its control, domination and grandiosity. An excellent emotional boundary system does not allow the force of another person's emotions to penetrate one's own personal space.

Accountability skills are another important tool in the sustainability advocate's arsenal. Accountability skills, used in group settings, are extremely educational to promote awareness regarding the dynamics of power. Accountability skills reduce the tendency to be a victim, and provide inspiration and support for persons looking for the courage to successfully challenge narcissistic forces. Accountability creates "space" by obligating narcissistic forces to substantiate positions, communication and behavior. Accountability skills generate the conditions that require narcissistic forces to take responsibility for their intent or give up their position.

Questions like the following are the medium for accountability skills:

How did you come to your decision/position?

What factors influenced your decision?

Have you considered the possibility that you are contradicting yourself?

Have you considered that you have avoided considering some important factors?

Can you clarify your intent and how it includes the following factors (e.g. your lack of accurate information/your resistance/your unwarranted/excessive criticism (which is actually character assassination)?

Transformation in accordance with principles of sustainability is dependent upon an individual and groups of individuals having and utilizing sufficient trust in themselves and in natural law to withstand the efforts of narcissistic forces to intimidate, mystify, and control major processes of life. The seeds of empowerment are contained within a world of trust, and its many subsets. There are many areas in which to develop trust before a persons or persons can amass sufficient power to transform the holds narcissistic forces maintain. These include: trust in oneself; trust that natural law supercedes the will and tenacity of narcissistic forces; trusting that narcissistic forces at their core do not come from strength, but from desperation; trust in one's skills to empower others by helping them to break down fears into manageable segments, and by asking questions that challenge others to think for themselves, and take responsibility for their positions.

In order to utilize this deep, inner reservoir of trust it is important to have highly developed tolerances for frustration, ambiguity and anxiety. Transformation often takes a long time and involves complex processes that parallel natural laws obeying temporal factors which are in direct contrast to narcissism's insistence upon immediate gratification. If we examine transformation briefly from the perspectives of biology and chemistry, we will notice that molecular processes continually taking place at the cellular level require heat. Heat is often associated with passion, whose activity is blocked by significant amounts of fear and anxiety. A leader must to able to facilitate the transformation of fear in others, not react to the fear of others, and contain and transform the fear within herself. Without this, focus is lost, and it becomes impossible to manifest the necessary combinations of interdependent resources that sustainability processes require.


There are many examples of leaders in history, some political, some religious, who have taken stands against narcissistic forces. It could be said that Jesus took a stand against the rigid, all knowing body of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Martin Luther's Wittenberg Doctrine transformed Christianity, breaking the Catholic Church's domination over the teachings of Christ.

One of the most notable political leaders in American history who challenged the forces of narcissism was President Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans against the British. Jackson was about to run for re-election approximately 160 years ago. Jackson, like a few other presidents before and after him, whose fraternity of like thinkers included Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, was embroiled in a battle with Nicholas Biddle, the president of the Bank of the United States. It was Jackson's position, adopted previously by Jefferson, and later by Lincoln, that this central bank, which was private, and not part of the government, did not have the right to control and dominate the money supply for the entire United States of America.

Jackson understood that whoever controlled the money supply basically controlled the economy and the country. Biddle was a part of the "eastern establishment," which at that time was already partnered with foreign interests who were the majority of the stockholders of the Bank of the United States. Biddle attempted to intimidate Jackson by asking for the bank's charter to be renewed earlier than was necessary because he assumed Jackson would not have the courage or principle to take the fight to the people, and run his re-election campaign with the stopping of the bank at the top of its platform. Biddle and his group wanted control and dominance if the economy and the country. Jackson, like Jefferson and Lincoln, believed that the best interests of the vast majority of Americans was not served by a private central bank, whose main motives were profit, power, and control for a select few. Jackson stood his ground, took the fight to the people and won his re-election as Biddle’s attempt at intimidation failed.


Unless one has the experience of dealing with narcissism, it is difficult to appreciate how strong a force drives the grandiosity of the narcissism. Remember the phrases, "I am the greatest; I am all powerful; the space is mine; it belongs to me; only what I want matters." Furthermore, since narcissism is ruled by "black and white" thinking, it is great, or it is nothing, and therefore a failure. There is no space for collaboration, for becoming or for emergence of a process.

There are many other examples in history to examine processes involving narcissism and its forces. We can look to family systems and the treatment of addicts if we choose to look at narcissism up close and personal. Wherever we look, however, we find a formidable force that needs to be understood and respected. Good will and motivations to serve the common good need to be complemented by education about processes that interfere with change and transformation.

We now find ourselves at a juncture in history where evolutionary transformation is inevitable. The more information and preparation we have to deal with narcissistic forces, the more able we will be able to remain aligned with transformational processes as they unfold.

About Bruce Gregory

Bruce Gregory, Ph.D. is a corporate behavioral specialist with almost twenty years of experience working with corporations and executives. He specializes in crisis intervention, Leadership training, team building, conflict resolution, and communications Training. He is also the Director of the Masters Program in Counseling Psychology at Ryokan College in Los Angeles. He has led workshops in the Art of Leadership at Esalen Institute. He has worked with corporations both in the United States and Europe. … He can be reached at (818) 781-3098 and his email address is



  1. This article would be a lot more effective if were written in plain language to be more broadly accessible to the average reader without of all the flowery prose. Example: "Excellent individual emotional boundaries are so critical for dealing with narcissism. These emotional boundaries prevent the force of the narcissism emotions from throwing an individual off balance." What would be wrong with something more like "Keeping a close eye on your own emotional reactions and keeping them in check is an important way to prevent the narcissist from putting you off balance."

  2. I don't think you added any less 'flowery prose'. You just made it more concise.