The Bad #CEO Files: Identifying The Clueless Narcissist

Dawn Burke Dawn Burke, Leadership

Holy crap, narcissism is alive and well in 2017! Narcissism in the workforce is nothing new; the narcissistic leader is nothing new. However, turn on any news channel and you’ll quickly see narcissists are center stage with a spotlight shining very brightly on them. Narcissists are finally being exposed and the public isn’t thrilled at what they are seeing.

Working for a company led by a narcissistic CEO is quite the roller-coaster.  And, if you are an HR pro trying the counsel your CEO on what is typically noxious behavior… good luck.  However, step number one for the HR pro is to simply identify that you are dealing with a narcissist.  Since that in itself can be tricky, let’s discuss.

Have you ever been on a tilt-o-whirl? At first the spinning is a little exciting.  You get a little rush.  You feel safe.  Your friend in the ride with you is laughing!  All is good.  

Then the resident “carney”, Side-Show-Bob—with a lucky strike in his mouth, a flask of bourbon in his sock and nothing better to do—cranks tilt-y up a notch. That fun rush? Gone. The feeling of safety is replaced with, “Damn, is my gut gonna break this baby-bar holding me in?” Laughing is replaced with nausea.  And the kicker: you question your sanity.  “Why did I jump on this sum-of-a b**ch?” You would say that shaking your fist to the heavens, except you can’t let go of baby-bar-holding-you-in.  

Side-show-Bob isn’t laughing at you, nor does he feel sorry for you.  He doesn’t really think about you in his equation at all.  All he knows is that this feels great to him.  It is precisely at that point you hear him laughing his jorts off as you hold on for dear life.  

This is what it feels like working for a narcissist. You’ve just been shaken and stirred in an environment, led by a CEO that has made you question your sanity. All kidding aside, that is what makes working for a narcissist so crappy.  If you are a rational person, the narcissist has you questioning your intuition, your work and, at times, your self-worth.  As Chris Rock would say, “Now, ain’t that a bitch!”

Narcissistic leaders aren’t necessarily clueless regarding their business, financials or ability to get results. Some narcissistic leaders are very successful business people.  In this great article from Psychology Today titled, Why Do We Choose Narcissistic Rather Than Humble Leaders?, it appears because these leaders can be effective, we, the collective world, tolerate them.  What makes them clueless is they have no insight into their bad behavior.  The narcissist just doesn’t care.  

So, how do you identify your CEO is a narcissist? Start by reading the article above and look over the signs of clinical narcissism.  Lack of empathy, self-grandiosity, and super-sensitivity to criticism are a few of the signs.

But what about other, more day-to-day tells?  Since we’ve all become conditioned to #badbosses, it’s easy to accept narcissism as “effective” leadership.  Effective or not, life is too short for this crazy-ment.  

Here is my short list of day-to-day narcissism tells:

  • They refuse to manage their time.  See, the narcissist’s time is more valuable than yours.  For example, the narcissist is completely OK giving you less than 12 hours notice to do things like create a slide deck and present to, I don’t know, the Board or the entire company or to an attorney. If you have to reschedule three customer calls you’ve had scheduled for two weeks and that doctor’s appointment it took you 4 weeks to get, so be it. I mean, your comfort is not really the narcissist’s thing.
  • They say, “Yeah, I already thought of that,” a lot. I mean, compulsively.  For example, if someone has a new idea, strategy, or a concept they’d like to explore, the narcissist’s auto-reply is “yeah, I already thought of that” and they shut you down. See, to the narcissist there are no new ideas, just his/her ideas.
  • You spend 50% of your HR time counseling the CEO’s direct reports.  And by “counseling” I mean helping bring them, at their request, down off the walls they’ve been climbing.  This is no joke.  
  • They justify toys, tools, and resources that are a step above everyone else.  The classic narcissist move is having a computer monitor noticeably bigger than any other employee. This sounds ridiculous, I know.  But when the CEO approves a hiring freeze, or holds purse strings very tightly to control expenses, but somehow justifies stupid “extravagances” like this, it’s narcissistic.  I mean, is the CEO a graphic designer?  
  • They focus on “processes” over content.  What does this mean?  If the CEO spends more time nit-picking employees who run afoul of their self-imposed processes (for instance, following their self-imposed meeting “rules”) rather than listening to the thoughts and ideas expressed in meetings, you are likely working for a narcissist.  
  • They only way they keep direct reports is through money.  They have no desire to breed loyalty through establishing real report, they could care less.
  • They refuse to change any of these habits despite feedback indicating they should. If you are in HR, you are typically privy to company-wide feedback gathered in surveys. If the CEO receives feedback year-over-year indicating some of these behaviors could be impacting results or employee morale and still refuses to change…run away from this company.
  • They play to their base (entry-level employees) but ignore their direct reports.  If you want to see this in action, watch Donald Trump for he is the master.  See, the narcissist has to feel not only in control but also adulation. For instance, the narcissistic CEO will spent time and money on ice-cream parties for the company, because it makes them look good and it gives the base the impression they cares.   

Now here is the rub: If you determine the CEO you are working for is a narcissist you will need to leave this organization at some point.  Maybe not tomorrow or next year, but you will need to leave.  Working for a CEO who lacks empathy or insight into his/her bad behavior is a losing proposition.  It is also completely counter to any good HR work you are trying to accomplish.  Until that time, hang in there, do the best work you can and take the opportunity to provide empathy and heart where you can.