There are many reasons why it is challenging to work for leaders with a narcissistic self-protective persona at the best of times. They are image-driven, with a need to have others treat them as though they are wonderful, smart, competent and amazing leaders at all times, despite the reality of their actual competence. Faced with their inexperience with leading during a crisis, anyone with this leadership persona has doubled down on their usual self-protective behaviours, causing employees to shut up for fear of bearing the wrath or ridicule of their boss. Most of us have witnessed competent and learned men and women compromising themselves by shutting up or looking for a way to support their narcissistic leader, despite their self-aggrandizing statements, attacking behaviour and outright lies.

We all have self-protective personas that we use to survive difficult experiences. Wired in our brain from birth and developed during our formative years, it ensures we are psychologically safe and that we survive the rigours of childhood. All self-protective personas are “I” focused as its sole agenda is protecting the self from harm. It’s an instinctual, human response with the brain set to “call in the troops” to defend against a perceived or real attack. As we develop, our authentic self becomes stronger and our persona becomes a part of who we are.

Those with a narcissistic persona can’t live from their authentic self because it isn’t developed. They have been idealized during their childhood and have grown up believing they are the idealized version of themselves their parents told them they were. Instead of knowing the substance or who they are, they only have an inflated or grandiose idea about themselves. Unfortunately, they are extremely fragile and dependent on others to make them feel unique, admired, and adored. They get others to provide them with affirmation and the mirroring of their grandiosity and perfection.

You Are an Object

People with narcissistic personas have little capacity to see others as anything but objects who are there to meet their needs. They also have little tolerance for any difference in thinking as they believe everyone should see the world the way they do. They demand like-mindedness in others; that they are on the same page at all times to regulate the narcissistic persona’s feelings and moods. They can only tolerate or have around them those people who match their beliefs, concerns, sense of urgency and needs.

Those who work or live with people with the narcissist persona usually operate from the belief that they will ultimately be able to get through to them, appeal to their conscience, or have them see the impact they are having with others. WRONG. This only results in an escalation of their defences, manipulation and outright lying to get you to back off. There is often no intrinsic desire in them to develop. After all, when you already believe you are great, being human is a huge step-down.

It’s a myth that people with a narcissistic persona love themselves too much. In fact, they usually have no sense of self and live with an idea of themselves – an inflated, idealized, grandiose image of themselves. Even they are at the mercy of their own dysfunctional and destructive behaviour as they employ any tactic to get others to behave in a way that supports their image and helps them avoid deep feelings of insecurity. Propping their image up takes a lot of work and they will employ any and all circumstances and people in it to help them do this.

Narcissistic Self-Protective Persona: Characteristics & Behaviors

As mentioned before, the narcissistic self-protective persona is a survival persona. It is a collection of behaviors that support a grandiose and inflated idea of who they are. They have little to no capacity to do anything but survive. Think of people who have to use this persona as an adult with a toddler inside running the show. This is why logic, consequence and reason don’t work to change their behavior. Going from an inflated sense of self to being an ordinary human is a downgrade to them, and they just aren’t interested.

The following are the tactics and beliefs of the Narcissistic Self-Protective Persona.

Grandiose Sense of Self-Importance

Grandiosity is an unrealistic or inflated sense of superiority. Those with a narcissistic persona believe they are unique or “special” and can only be understood by other special people. They feel they are too good for anything average or ordinary and deserve the best of everything. They only want to associate and be associated with other high-status people, places, and things. They have very little tolerance to feeling average and are often addicted to activities and people that make them feel special. They need and expect to be recognized by others as superior, even when they’ve done nothing to earn it. Whether it shows itself in a leader telling peers what a great job they did on a project when it was actually their team or coming to a meeting unprepared and proceed to hijack the meeting talking about how great they are doing with work that has nothing to do with those in attendance. They exaggerate or outright lie about their achievements and talents and expect others to go along with them. All you’re likely to hear from them is how much they contribute, how great they are, better than anyone else whoever did the job, and how great their team is because of their leadership. They are the undisputed star and everyone else is at best a bit player.

Leaders with a narcissistic persona have to be admired and have the delusion of their success, brilliance and even attractiveness affirmed. Anything that threatens their fantasy is met with extreme defensiveness and even rage, so those around the narcissist learn to tread carefully around their denial of reality.

Their Self-Protective Agenda Comes First

The agenda of a leader with a narcissistic persona is to demonstrate their superiority over others and have others acknowledge it. On a leadership team, their personal agenda often conflicts with the agenda of the team and business. Because they want to show others how superior they are, they disrupt, delay, discount and devalue people, fracturing the cohesiveness of their team. They might agree to something one day and change their mind the next, denying they ever agreed. Easily slighted by others when they aren’t recognized or when they are put in their place, they use emotions to create further conflict on the team.

Getting their need met at the expense of the collective agenda gets in the way of building strong leadership teams aligned behind the organizational objectives. Remember, narcissistic leaders don’t want to collaborate, they want to be the best because they need to win. The organization’s goals and needs of others don’t factor in their approach or their behaviour. Self-protective behavior is instinctual, and they will do whatever it takes to show how great, important and special they are. They will be disruptive during meetings, or they show up late or unprepared to participate. They easily deflect blame or responsibility and will coerce peers into agreeing with them through emotional manipulation. They will fracture the group dynamics leading to an “us vs. them” division on the team.

The narcissistic leader won’t listen to anyone or anything that doesn’t align with their view of reality. This includes feedback about themselves, their ideas or plans. Fueled by their past successes and image of what they can do, they make decisions without testing the reality. Should someone challenge them, especially in a public forum, they retaliate often aggressive ways. Employees learn quickly not to challenge or question them.

Use and Exploit People for Own Agenda

People with a narcissistic persona cannot form relationships authentically. Instinctually, people feel the tentativeness of the relationship with them and know the only way to have the relationship is to adapt and be useful to them. They use people as a means to their end; to support their agenda and shore up their image. Really, there is only room for one person in the relationship and your only purpose is to reflect back to them their grandeur. And if you don’t act right, you will be kicked to the curb. They treat disagreement from others as a betrayal of them. While they demonstrate no loyalty to anyone, everyone must constantly be proving they are worthy of being around them.

Narcissistic leaders have an appetite for recognition and admiration that must be constantly fed. It is like a hunger that must be satisfied, and they are dependent on others feeding them a steady supply to maintain their psychological safety. They nurture relationships with people willing to cater to their unrelenting appetite for affirmation. These leaders have no qualms about using people and to achieve his or her own ends. They promote their image of being superior and devalue others to increase their self-esteem. Someone has to be weak so they can be strong. They see vulnerabilities in others and get others to serve them by exploiting them. They choose people with low self-esteem and take advantage of their weaknesses. They will criticize, humiliate or embarrass others in public with demeaning jokes or comments.

Narcissistic Leaders feel threatened by competent people and while they may hire competent employees, they don’t let them develop or have any real influence. They often hire people who are less competent or inexperienced to maintain their status as “top dog.” The resulting lack of bench strength and leadership gap creates serious issues with employees. It can also interfere with the ability to deliver to customers. Next level managers end up working long hours to compensate for their lack of development and experience.

Sense of Entitlement

With a strong sense of entitlement, leaders with a narcissistic persona believe they don’t have to comply with organizational policies, protocols and even timelines. They expect the exceptions to be made for them and their excuses and rationale be accepted without question. Should anyone get upset with them or when they are held accountable, they either blame others or circumstances or they use emotion to get others to back down. They become enraged should someone say “no” or treat them like everyone else.

For most people, entitled behavior is shocking to them. It is even more shocking when we see it in our leaders because we look to them to set an example. Narcissistic leaders don’t care what you might think about how they are behaving, because they really do believe that whatever they want, they should get, when they want it, despite the rules. They also expect everyone to automatically and immediately comply with their every wish and whim and are infuriated when they don’t. If you don’t anticipate and meet their every need, expect their behavior toward you to change. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you are special to them as you are only as good as what you can do for them. And if you have the nerve to defy their will or “selfishly” ask for something in return, prepare yourself for aggression, outrage, or the cold shoulder.

While Narcissistic Leaders promote an image of the type of leader they are, their behavior rarely aligns. They will promote values, authenticity, consistency and alignment of behaviors which they follow when it serves them. They will be the first to criticize others for not doing so but will not listen to feedback about their behavior and the impact it has on the business. This creates performance issues when their direct reports disregard the organization’s mandate in favor of the narcissistic leader’s agenda.

Lack of Empathy

The ability to empathize with others is beyond the ability of the narcissistic persona. To put it bluntly, to empathize, one has to care what others feel, need and experience. There is so little psychological development in these people that they are stuck believing that they are the centre of the universe and everyone’s purpose is as an object who is there to serve their needs. This lets them freely take advantage of others to achieve their own ends. They are oblivious to the impact they have on others because fundamentally, they believe that others feel blessed and lucky just to be in proximity to them. They simply don’t think about how their behavior affects others and it doesn’t matter if you tell them. Your feelings don’t matter and are irrelevant. They only understand their own needs and agenda and how others can help them meet it.

Employees feel invisible and used by their narcissistic leader. They often get stuck trying to gain approval by working harder and taking on more despite the personal cost to themselves. This usually doesn’t work as narcissistic leaders take, they don’t give unless there is something in it for them. Employees end up feeling resentful, deflated and disengaged. Or, because they fear what their boss might do to their career, they allow themselves to be used, yelled at and otherwise humiliated. Leaders with a narcissistic persona create a culture of fear and loathing and an absence of soul.

Grandiose Goals

Narcissistic Leaders believe they know better than others. They dismiss or devalue the ideas and opinions of their peers, boss and direct reports should they differ from their own. They also exaggerate their achievements and talents and expect to be recognized as superior. To others, they appear arrogant. They give their opinions and expect others to agree with and defer to them. Status is important to them and they want to associate with, other special or high-status people often dismissing others they consider having no value. For example, a client’s peer with a narcissistic persona would come to meetings and scan the room to see who was there. If high-status people were around, they would proceed to grandstand. If no one of status was there, they would stay for a while and leave mid-meeting.

These leaders want to be king or queen of the castle. To do this, they create their own domain where they rule and don’t want anyone to see what is actually going on within their department. They report that all is great, but it is often not the case. Because senior leaders may have bought into the image of this, they get blindsided when they find out what is actually going on when there is no oversight. Leaders with a narcissistic persona will also ignore the systems and practices of the organization. Driven by the belief that their way is the better way, this leader does their own thing at the expense of organizational alignment.

Without oversight, Narcissistic Leaders will take risks that can threaten the value of the organization instead of increasing it. They will build a thriving company only to crash it by taking excessive risks! Looking to increase their status and power, they drive growth so fast that their business implodes. Or they take capital risks without doing due diligence. They reject any advice to the contrary to what they want to do and stay. With little insight into themselves and their motivations, they set their own course for destruction.

Envies, Devalues, Intimidates, Bullies, or Belittles Others

Narcissistic leaders feel threatened whenever they encounter someone who appears to have something they lack—especially those who are confident and popular. They’re also threatened by people who don’t kowtow to them or who challenge them in any way. Their defense mechanism is contempt. The only way to neutralize the threat and prop up their own sagging ego is to put those people down. They may do it in a patronizing or dismissive way as if to demonstrate how little the other person means to them. Or they may go on the attack with insults, name-calling, bullying, and threats to force the other person back into line.

While it may look like people with the narcissistic persona reward and praise others for their achievements, it will always be short-lived. They initially get attention by showing someone off to others, if there is some benefit to them to do so. They are highly competitive and don’t like to be shown up by anyone. However, their need to win kicks in and so does demonstrations of contempt and devaluation. People who work for or with people with a narcissistic persona walk on eggshells around them. They are unsure of how they are going to respond and are afraid to show what they can do for fear of being trashed or devalued. Direct reports become “Yes” men and women. Employees will work hard for them but will always keep themselves protected for fear they do or say something wrong.

Because narcissistic leaders have no conscience or empathy for others, they will devalue and minimize people they once praised, making them seem unimportant and lacking. They easily throw people under the bus when something goes wrong, to make themselves look good. They will insist that someone’s idea isn’t valuable when they have previously supported it, with no insight into how this makes them look. They will also dismiss accomplishments that are a big deal for a peer or direct report so they can get the attention back on themselves.

You Can’t Change Narcissistic Behavior

People with a narcissistic persona become leaders because they feel entitled to the place at the top. They don’t always have the skill or competence to lead but their ever-present self-interest and survival instincts cause them to be very successful. Charismatic and influential, they stand out from their peers. They tend to be outgoing, socially confident and enthusiastic. Others are naturally drawn to them and are happy to follow and work hard to please them. Narcissistic people expect others to do what they want and follow them without question. They naturally sell their image and impress those above them to get what they want. Unfortunately, promoting a person with a narcissistic persona into a leadership role without a strong boss, clear expectations and an accountability strategy will have a strong, negative impact on employees, outcomes and the organizational culture.

Narcissists may be good at rising to power within an organization, but their success usually doesn’t last long. Once people see past the image to who they are and what they are actually capable of doing, it is too late. Studies have shown that narcissistic managers are generally rated as average for problem-solving skills, but below average for “leadership skills, interpersonal skills and integrity.” Their inability to empathize, share credit, and build bench strength leads to poor bench strength and a fear-based culture. These are the leaders that competent people leave or they are fired for showing up the narcissistic leader.

Don’t Think They Are Like You

Make no mistake, there is no motivation for the narcissistic persona to do anything about their behaviour. They have no desire to change and develop. Their behaviour, approach to life and the way they treat others is all orchestrated to meet their need to feel the way they must feel for psychological stability. It is not something that can be changed even when it’s causing them problems. We can delude ourselves into thinking that these people can change or develop and they are like we are. They are not. They have to be boundaries, managed and held accountable. If not, they are like kids, sometimes obnoxious diva-like kids, who are nasty when they don’t get their needs met. They blame, devalue, call others names, publicly humiliate and shame others to shift the focus from their inadequacies.

Worst of all, they can trigger self-protective behavior in others. That’s why it is so critical to be realistic when it comes to what you can and can’t do when dealing with the narcissistic persona of leaders. Just because they are extremely sensitive and react badly to any perceived criticism, disagreement, or perceived slights – all that they view as personal attacks – doesn’t mean you don’t boundary their behavior. Many live in fear of their demands and validate them even though they are wrong just to avoid their rage and punishment This is collusion and can be seen as being worse than narcissistic behavior itself in that the narcissistic persona has no choice. They are in survival mode. Unless you actually are, you have a choice to not support their destructive behaviours.