CEO Coaching: Are You Becoming a Narcissist?

Narcissistic CEOs are an unfortunate, though sometimes very successful, feature of the business landscape. While approximately 6% of us suffer from this disorder, it’s more prevalent in males than females (though some believe females are catching up) and more common on mahogany row—some think 40% of CEOs exhibit significant symptoms.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identifies narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) by the following:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following:

1.     Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

2.     Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

3.     Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

4.     Requires excessive admiration

5.     Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)

6.     Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)

7.     Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

8.     Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

9.     Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

—American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Lest you think all successful people have NPD, the DSM-5 goes on to say: “Many highly successful individuals display personality traits that might be considered narcissistic. Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute narcissistic personality disorder.”

Although there’s likely a genetic component to NPD, I’m confident (and most experts would agree) that their environment is also causal. You can unknowingly develop it over time, and you can combat it.

The challenge is that you probably won’t have enough self-awareness to see it without very assertive feedback.

I only work with senior executives, mostly CEOs, and have observed heightened narcissistic tendencies in those who experience the following:

1.     Compliant coworkers

2.     Heightened public attention

3.     Significant rewards (compensation and non-monetary rewards)

4.     Unquestioned authority

5.     Sycophantic behavior from those around them (and the inability to recognize it)

6.     Avoidance of seeking the truth and non-supportive feedback

The first five are common in most organizations, which means all long-serving CEOs are subjected to the virus that causes it! The last point is the most important one; it highlights the vaccination that may prevent the disorder. (I can’t and don’t treat NPD. I do help executives recognize and change their behavior so that they and their organizations improve.)

The world needs competent and confident leaders. It doesn’t need narcissists (though some will succeed). Don’t be one, and don’t help create one.

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