Why narcissism cannot be ignored by public safety leadership
Dr. Michael L. Beshears advises on how to be cognizant of narcissism in public safety, where empathy is required and leaders must be active listeners
American Military University
By Dr. Michael L. Beshears, Criminal Justice faculty
Narcissism is the part of an individual’s personality that seeks attention and approval. It is the aspect within people that causes them to brag and seek to be the center of attention from time to time. Everyone exhibits some degree of narcissism. However, extreme narcissists are the ones who seem to constantly brag and constantly need to be the center of attention.
Leaders should not ignore people in their organizations who appear to be extremely narcissistic, because these people usually have their own self-serving agenda. This may be in opposition to or a detriment to an organization’s mission and the morale of staff (Grijalva, Harms, Newman, Gaddis, & Fraley, 2015). It can also lead to an “us” versus “them” mentality, which can prove counter-productive to effective policing initiatives.
Leaders, including those in public safety fields such as law enforcement, fire services and emergency medical services, must be aware of their own narcissistic tendencies, and pay attention to others who seem to have an extreme narcissistic personality.
Characteristics of Narcissists
Extreme narcissists usually make an extraordinarily good first impression. They are very conscious of their appearance and how they appear to others. They excel at using charisma to impress and often manipulate and dominate discussions. This is a strategy to keep the focus on themselves (Hammond, 2016). However, what you hear them say about themselves is not necessarily true. The phrase “what you see is not what you get” often applies to these individuals (Maccoby, 2000).
An extreme narcissistic individual believes he or she does not need anybody’s assistance to succeed or to excel. Such individuals typically attempt to portray themselves as capable, determined individuals. This may be partially true; however, the extreme narcissist will stop at nothing to succeed, even if it is at the expense of the organization or others (Grijalva et al., 2015).
The overbearing narcissistic leaders generally lead by fear and so they seldom last very long in an organization (Grijalva et al., 2015). Others quickly realize that the extreme narcissistic individual is not as competent as people might have originally believed (Maccoby, 2000).
McCall and Lombardo (1983) (as cited by Grijalva, et al., 2015), further notes 10 reasons as to why extreme narcissistic leaders and managers derail themselves, which often leads to termination. “Many of the reasons for derailment overlap with the very definition of narcissism. Illustrative reasons include: (a) insensitivity (abrasive, intimidating, bullying); (b) being cold, aloof, arrogant; (c) betraying trust; and (d) being overly ambitious.”
Grijalva, et al. (2015) goes on to express that narcissistic leaders with these personality traits seem to rarely admit mistakes. This is attributed to a refusal to take responsibility for their unsuccessful decisions or actions and their personal fear of failure.
Narcissistic Leaders Cannot Stand Disagreement
Subordinates of an extreme narcissistic leader should be cautious and avoid confrontations. According to Maccoby (2000), a narcissistic leader cannot stand disagreement.
In fact, they can be extremely abrasive with employees who doubt them — or with subordinates who are tough enough to fight back. Steve Jobs, for example, publicly humiliated subordinates. Thus, although narcissistic leaders often say that they want teamwork, what this means in practice is that they want a group of yes-men.
A narcissistic individual is generally unable to admit anything but perfection in themselves and their actions. Unless the narcissistic leader or manager is being addressed by a subordinate in a constructive and supportive way, a person who dares to confront or disagree may find they are subject to extreme backlash and possible termination. This is because a narcissistic leader is “generally motivated by their needs for power and admiration rather than empathetic concern for the constituents and institutions they lead” (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006).
Hammond (2016) states, “A weakness of a narcissist is their extreme hatred of being embarrassed. There is nothing worse for them than having someone point out even the slightest fault. Ironically, they have no problem openly doing this to others.”
Narcissistic Individuals Want Admiration
Narcissistic individuals “want to be admired, not loved” (Maccoby, 2000). Unlike other personality types, narcissistic people lack a guilty conscience: They will do whatever it takes in the pursuit of their own goals. Maccoby 2000 states:
Of all the personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. And because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies, sometimes degenerating into paranoia when they are under extreme stress.
Leaders, managers, and especially those working in public safety fields need to be empathetic and caring individuals. They need to show empathy towards the public they serve, as well as to the subordinates they lead. These are important personality traits needed to build high-quality community relationships. Leaders must be active listeners who are open to input from subordinates as well as from the community.
Most importantly, leaders in public safety occupations should show an earnest concern for the organization and the public’s safety above their own self-serving agendas. Since extreme narcissism prevents people from such positive interactions, leaders must be cognizant of and discourage this type of behavior in the best interest of their departments and the communities they serve.
Grijalva, E., Harms, P. D., Newman, D. A., Gaddis, B. H., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Narcissism and Leadership: A Meta‐Analytic Review of Linear and Nonlinear Relationships. Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 1-47.
Hammond, C., MS, LMHC. (2016, May 24). 11 Ways Narcissists Use Shame to Control [blog article]. PsychCentral.com Retrieved from http://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2016/05/11-ways-narcissists-use-shame-to-control/#
Maccoby, M. (2000). Narcissistic leaders: The incredible pros, the inevitable cons. Harvard Business Review, 78(1), 68-78.
Rosenthal, S. A., & Pittinsky, T. L. (2006). Narcissistic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 617-633.