In the past five or so years, there’ve been more articles and mentions of narcissism than I’d seen in all the years before that combined.
How to deal with a narcissistic partner. Learning to cope with your narcissistic boss. The effects of having been raised by a narcissistic parent. The concept of narcissism has gone mainstream. Yet, there isn’t as much talk about narcissistic leadership.
Maybe it’s because we don’t directly interact with leaders, and therefore don’t see the impact they have on us like we do with a boss or spouse. Or maybe it’s because part of us believes that narcissism is somewhat expected among leaders, so we forgive it more easily than we would in those ordinary people we deal with every day. Which is interesting because, in the big picture, a narcissistic leader can do a shit-ton of damage that can impact our lives over the long term.
I think this idea became clearer when a narcissist was granted the title of U.S. President back in 2016. Donald Trump has all the classic signs of narcissism and has displayed his self-absorption, lack of empathy, and inability to handle criticism since the beginning. But I’m not here to bash Trump; he’s not the first narcissistic leader we’ve ever had, nor will he be the last.
Narcissists often seek leadership positions because they crave attention, adoration, and power. They believe they’re special and therefore are entitled to special treatment, something leadership reinforces, and their inflated egos mean that they live to impart their glorious vision upon their constituencies, employees, or fans.
The Downside of Narcissistic Leaders
The negatives of narcissistic leaders are clear. Leadership is about service to others and setting an example to create a better country, workplace, family, or world. A leader who lives to serve himself and gratify his ego will never put the needs of those he leads first. History is riddled with these fools, with their opulent riches when their people are starving, their lying and excesses, their mistreatment of those who serve them, their willingness to do damage and then blame anyone but themselves, and their ability to railroad over those they deem inferior. For famous examples, see Alexander the Great, Henry the VIII, and Adolf Hitler. You can add any cult leader, quite a few famous CEOs, and most notoriously “difficult” celebrities to the list.
The question I’ve asked myself, especially with all the polarization regarding Trump, is why people choose these kinds of leaders, or follow/worship these kinds of celebrities. The downsides are so clear. These people are a freaking nightmare to deal with as it is. So…
Why would you choose a narcissistic leader, follow a narcissistic pundit, or worship a narcissistic celebrity?
I set out to find the answer, and it didn’t take long to find it.
Why Narcissists Wind up in Power
The reason is because narcissistic people present well. They’re often well-spoken, charming, even likable (at first, anyway). They’re typically good-looking too and will put a considerable amount of time into their appearances because, well, they’re vain. Perhaps most troubling of all, is their inflated egos mean they have confidence to the moon, and confidence is like a drug that most people will snort up their noses until they bleed.
Humans love a well-spoken, articulate person. They can make the biggest lump of shit sound like the very thing our future needs, soothing any doubts we have.
Humans also love good-looking people. The more attractive they are, the more special they seem in our eyes (Kim Kardashian, anyone?).
And, humans love confidence. Confidence can assuage our fears, give us purpose when we’re unsure, rally us. We figure, hey, they sound like they know what they’re doing, so they probably do.
This is why, in addition to narcissists seeking leadership and spotlight positions, they’re more likely to be selected for them. Whether a political election, a job interview, or role in a big movie, those doing the choosing are most likely to select the narcissistic personality who puts on a good show. It’s the social equivalent of picking the hottest woman or guy for a date rather than the one you connect the best with. Why? Because they LOOK GOOD.
So why are humans such fools in this way?
These traits—eloquence, attractiveness, confidence—are all things we wish for ourselves. Life is filled with uncertainty and, well, it can be hard. When we see people who seem to have it all together, we’re drawn to them and hope they can show us the way or lead us to a better life.
In most cases, they can’t. If they’re narcissistic, they’ll do the opposite.
U.S. Presidents: The Donald and Slick Willie
Donald Trump isn’t especially eloquent or good-looking, but he’s loaded with confidence up to his eyeballs and can talk his way through anything no matter what craziness spews from him. However, before you get on your soapbox about Trump, good old Bill Clinton ranks pretty high on the narcissism scale for U.S. presidents too, according to a 2013 Pew Research article (see second reference), and Slick Willie definitely had the eloquence and looks people loved while overlooking that he had some serious character flaws.
Interestingly, the article also mentioned that U.S. presidents have become more narcissistic in recent years. Which means we’re choosing to buy into the smoke and mirrors of charm and confidence.
So, when the time comes to vote again or choose who we want influencing us, maybe it’s time to put aside the charm, looks, and confidence and focus on the candidate’s knowledge, ideas, and how they live their lives and treat others. The substance, not the packaging.
Because narcissists belong in therapy, not running cities, states, or countries.