Leadership avoidance of the narcissism trap

October 9th, 2017

Narcissism is frequently in the news these days, and rightly so. It is a condition to which all humanity is vulnerable. Yet it seems particularly poisonous when evidenced in leaders, whether political, religious or any other leadership role.

Leadership narcissism is so insidious because followers entrust and expect leaders to lead them with integrity and service, looking out for the needs and well-being of others. Instead, narcissistic leaders are self-centered, using their positions of power and authority for self-aggrandizement and promotion of self above others.

While narcissistic personality disorder is a relatively contemporary diagnosis and terminology, narcissism has been a part of the human landscape since our very first human parents. In very simple and general terms narcissism is a result of hubris (false pride) gone wild.

Narcissism left unattended and unabated will wreak havoc and chaos in organizations and systems. Leaders, through self-awareness, accountability and other prudent practices should flee narcissistic tendencies like the plague for the sake of healthy leadership and vibrant systems.

For all leaders who seek a genuine humility and a helpful and healthy style of leading, here are some suggested positive practices. When implemented they serve to guard us from the abuse of leadership power and guide us in the essential pursuit of personal awareness.

1. Do not take yourself too seriously. This is one of the frequent liabilities of leaders. We experience, for example, some degree of success and we begin to internalize these accomplishments. The job, the career, the skills, the talents — all easily become, if we allow, a big part of who we are. If not vigilant and honest we begin to build our self-esteem and even our self-worth through what we do and what we have accomplished. In this works-righteousness mindset, if gone to seed, our worth is tallied by our amount of production.

This relative success is often accompanied with compliments, congratulations and kudos from those around us. While it is good and right to celebrate and give thanks for fruitfulness and favorable comments from others, to the extent that we are not mindfully observant, we may get carried away in this dangerous flow of accomplishments and accolades. The ego gets over-inflated. Our false pride gets massaged. We can begin thinking too highly of ourselves. And, we take self too seriously.

The key: don’t take yourself too seriously; but, instead, take God and God’s will more seriously. Realize and rejoice in the reality that God is God and we are not. Learn to laugh at yourself. Share not only your successes but also your rough edges and your mistakes and failures. It will keep the focus properly upon God (instead of self); it will make life more enjoyable with less perfectionistic pressure; and, others will greatly benefit from your authentic and transparent leadership.

2. Remember your continual need for the other person's opinion and perspective. No one person has a monopoly on the truth. At best, we are fortunate if we have a perspective which perceives a portion, a percentage, of reality and truth. We have a unique perspective which needs expressing and hearing. The other person has the same. One of the greatest gifts we can give to another is the gift of actively listening to their words and expressions. And, in the process of really listening we may gain a friend or gain a new and helpful perspective.

There's way too much talking past one anotherin our culture. A person is sharing their thoughts with us and far before they are finished speaking we are already formulating our opinion, ideas, or even rebuttal, oftentimes interrupting the other party. St. James, on the topic of communication provides this advice: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (James 1:19). Practice of this biblical advice may lead to the discovery and affirmation that we do, indeed, require the perspective of the other.

3. No one is perfect, so let us not pretend to be so. Pretension is a poison for both the pretender and for the observer. Pretenders carry around the heavy weight of putting on a front and wearing a mask. Observers can often see right through the false fronts and unfortunately, therefore, are prohibited from developing close and authentic relationships with the pretenders. Leaders who practice pretension are setting themselves up for failure and they are pointing others wrongly and tragically to themselves rather than rightly placing the focus upon the Almighty.

We are not to be pretentious but, instead, we are called to practice integrity — not people of perfection but people of integrity. Integrity is not perfection; rather, it is reflection of God’s truth and love in our lives. Integrity is seeking to do right, but honestly admitting when we fail to do so. Integrity is authentic and real in direct contrast to pretension. This truth is reflected in our personal admission and confession of our sin and shortcomings before God and unto one another. This practice of integrity is essential in our avoiding and overcoming narcissistic traits and tendencies.

4. Build people up instead of tearing people down. When one looks down upon and speaks poorly of others it only reveals a deep insecurity and hurt within the negative person. Wounded people do wound people. First, we need to admit and find help for our wounded condition (see below, number 5); and, in doing so we will discover more sympathy and empathy for others.

As leaders, one of our main job descriptions is to be an encourager. Our leadership call is to edify, not terrify, others within our realm of influence. Persons are motivated by, and the kingdom of God is advanced by, compassionate and servant leaders as opposed to self-centered, demanding rulers. Leaders may possess an abundance of knowledge, credentials and powerful positions, yet their influence and ultimately their authority is determined and validated by those within their sphere of contact. As has often and accurately stated, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” As leaders we are charged with being careful and thoughtful builders; not point persons of a demolition crew.

5. Engage in the difficult but freeing work of family systems investigation and insight into one's family of origin. This is lifelong, neverending work. But, it consists of some of the most liberating endeavors for self and for generations of family members to follow. Research and reflect upon at least three generations of your family of origin, including your generation and working backwards in time to ancestors. Look for the family patterns, positions, roles and rules. Seek out the celebrations, the struggles and any tragedies which may have happened. Look also for relationship impasse, enmeshment, and estrangement in the family system. This family research is the “homework” that every leader needs to continually and faithfully carry out in order to be a more differentiated (mature) person leading to greater and more honest self-awareness.

6. Stay focused on the main thing and keep it the main thing. The main thing is the mission, the vision and the core values of the organization or group that we are entrusted to lead. We must not permit distractions to detract us and the entity we are guiding.

7. Always remember and appreciate grace. God undeservedly offers us grace and mercy. As a famous professional baseball manager once stated: “Grace is getting what we do not deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.” Leaders must open to and receive grace from divinity so that we may extend this same gift of grace to humanity.

8. Practice good holistic health habits. Leadership is tough and at times very taxing. It can take a cumulative toll on anyone. The reason? Leaders work and deal with people. People — and this includes leaders — are imperfect. And relationships, at times, are messy. Stress happens. And, distress can take up residence in our lives if we do not see to healthy holistic habits. Be certain to regularly participate in some sort of physical exercise. Healthy eating is critical. Seek to get seven to eight hours of sleep nightly. As someone has wisely shared: Divert daily; withdraw weekly; and, abandon annually. Observe Sabbath. Find and confide in a trusted confidant. Seek out a therapist, if needed. Consider a spiritual director in order to go deeper in psyche and spirit.

9. Accountability is a must. Over the past five years I have been affirmed and challenged by a clergy covenant peer group to which I belong. Six of us pastors gather together once a month for three and one half hours. We comfort and we confront one another. We laugh, we cry, we pray, we study and we, most importantly, are there for and with one another. It took some time and experiences for a deep level of trust to develop within our group. But once trust was established honesty and authenticity became our relational hallmarks.

In addition to accountability and support peer groups, leaders also require the oversight and accountability of workplace and administrative groups, whether personnel committees or boards of directors. Checks and balances are not only wise, they are mandatory for any healthy and sustainable leadership.

10. Get a life outside your current place of work and service. Do not be married to your place of business or to your church. As a pastor leader I am called to worship, and first and foremost love, Jesus, not the church. The church is a blessing. The church is called to change the world. Yet, it is called to change the world in Jesus’ name, not in its own name and power.

The church we pastor, the business we lead, will be much better off, and so will we as leaders, if we have a life outside of our primary place of vocation. Protect family and significant other time. Pursue hobbies. Participate in physical exercise. Practice Sabbath time. In doing so we are liberated by being reminded that we are not indispensable. Life and our church and our place of business go on just fine without us!

Which brings us full circle in these ten leadership suggestions: Do not take yourself too seriously. But rather, take God and God’s will more seriously.

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