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Human Resources

Should you work for a narcissistic leader?

Published 1 February 2024 in Human Resources • 8 min read

They’re charismatic, confident, visionary – and grandiose, defensive, punishing. Narcissists can be inspiring, and they can break you. The key is to be aware of what you’re getting into, says Michael Watkins. Watch for the warning signs and recognize when it’s time to move on.

A substantial portion of leaders in business, politics, academia, and other domains are inevitably narcissists, partly because of their personal need for power and attention and partially because they can drive substantial organizational success.

Recent research from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University estimated that 18% of CEOs are moderate-to-high narcissists. The percentage in high-growth technology companies is likely to be higher, and there is evidence that many company founders have these characteristics.

Given that you are likely to encounter them, you should decide whether to work for a narcissistic leader with awareness of what you are dealing with and balance their research-validated potential to drive positive outcomes with an understanding of the inherent risks. The key is recognizing narcissistic leaders early and being intentional about when to follow them and for how long.

Understanding the potential upsides

There are potential benefits to working for narcissistic leaders. In fact, the upside can be an energizing and sometimes very rewarding experience.

They often possess an impressive ability to craft and communicate compelling visions for the future. Their charisma can rally staff around a shared aspirational goal, infusing the workplace with energy and purpose, sometimes to cult-like intensity. These leaders often can see “beyond the horizon”, envisioning possibilities others may dismiss as daydreams. They can turn these visions into narratives that inspire, align, and mobilize their organizations.

Narcissistic leaders exude confidence that can infect their entire teams, boosting morale and encouraging people to exert their fullest effort. Their willingness to take risks also can be transformative. By daring to go when others are cautious, they can break new ground, discover untapped markets, and create novel solutions for customers. In uncertain and risky environments, their clear sense of direction and unwavering confidence can provide you and others with a sense of solidity and security.

Decisiveness is a defining trait of narcissistic leadership. These leaders make decisions swiftly and without equivocation. This quality is essential when time-sensitive opportunities or challenges arise, allowing their organizations to respond rapidly. The willingness of narcissistic leaders to make bold, often unconventional moves can lead to significant gains and catalyze innovation in ways that can benefit their followers, including you.

In addition, the sense of protection these leaders project can be reassuring. In an era of rapid change and uncertainty, leaders who display unshakeable confidence can help stabilize an organization and provide a sense of safety that can empower you and others to focus on their work without fear.

Narcissistic leaders often can see “beyond the horizon”, envisioning possibilities others may dismiss as daydreams

The potential benefits of deciding to work for a narcissistic leader are, therefore, considerable. Their visionary thinking, bold approach to risk, decisive action, and unwavering confidence can propel organizations to great heights, and you can go along for the ride. When harnessed well, the dynamic qualities of such leaders can lead to significant advancements, energizing teams and resulting in substantial organizational achievements.

Recognizing the potential downsides

Before deciding to sign on, however, take stock of the potential downsides of following a narcissistic leader, which are considerable and potentially severe. They tend to engage in exploitative relationships, treating their followers as stepping stones towards their ambitions, often disregarding the well-being of those they lead. Team members may find themselves unsupported or even blamed in challenging times, as narcissistic leaders typically do not stand by those who do not directly contribute to their narrative of success and rarely accept responsibility for setbacks.

Narcissistic leaders typically lack empathy, meaning employees’ emotional and professional needs are often overlooked. They are unlikely to offer support or recognition, eroding team morale and productivity. You may thus find yourself in a precarious position during challenging times, lacking the leadership support crucial for navigating adversity.

Candid feedback is often unwelcome to narcissistic leaders. They tend to view constructive criticism as a personal affront rather than an opportunity for improvement. This can create an environment where truth-telling is punished and sycophancy is rewarded. The result can be a culture of fear, where employees are hesitant to voice concerns or offer insights that could be perceived as dissent.

The volatility of narcissistic leaders can be particularly destructive. Their need for continuous admiration and affirmation may lead to erratic decision-making. Priorities can shift to align with the leader’s desire for acclaim rather than the organization’s strategic goals, which may create a chaotic work environment where sound decisions and effective long-term planning get sacrificed for short-term ego boosts.

The ambitious goals set by narcissistic leaders can sometimes veer into the unrealistic, with insufficient regard for practical constraints or the strategic planning required to achieve them. This overreach can strain resources, demoralize employees, and jeopardize the organization’s future. A related danger is that narcissistic leaders tend to believe that rules are for lesser mortals, which can lead them to push ethical and even legal boundaries, sometimes to the detriment of those who follow them.

Like the potential benefits, the downsides of narcissistic leadership are profound, including exploitative relationships, a lack of empathy, resistance to feedback, volatility, and unsustainable goal setting. These factors can undermine an organization’s culture, employee morale, and long-term success. If you decide to follow a narcissistic leader, you must remain vigilant and be ready to find alternative paths if your professional and personal well-being are at risk.

“Priorities can shift to align with the leader's desire for acclaim rather than the organization's strategic goals, which may create a chaotic work environment where sound decisions and effective long-term planning get sacrificed for short-term ego boosts. ”

Tuning into the warning signs

It is dangerous to follow a narcissist without knowing what you are dealing with. You don’t want to realize what they are like when it’s too late. Recognizing early that you are dealing with a narcissistic leader is crucial in safeguarding your career and well-being.

Watch out for signs that the leader has an excessive need for admiration, paired with a lack of genuine interest in the ideas or feelings of others. Observe whether they seem to be constantly seeking the spotlight and overshadowing the contributions of their team members, taking credit for successes while deflecting blame for failures.

Stay tuned to whether they expect special treatment or unquestioned compliance with their demands. If they react to criticism with anger or disdain, displaying a fragile ego despite an outward appearance of toughness, this is another warning sign. So, too, is a tendency to make unilateral decisions, prioritize personal glory over collective success, and set unrealistic, grandiose goals that serve their image rather than the organization’s practical needs. Persistent patterns of such behavior are strong indicators that you are dealing with a narcissistic leader.

Being intentional about when to follow

As a follower or potential follower of a narcissistic leader, you should carefully weigh the benefits of their leadership strengths against the potential costs to your personal well-being and professional success. It’s essential to be intentional about following narcissistic leaders.

Be vigilant about how your values align with the leader’s approach and the organization’s direction. If the leader’s vision and methods resonate with you and serve your career growth without compromising your principles, it may be beneficial to follow, at least for a while.

However, you should continuously assess the impact of the leader’s behavior on you, your team, and the organization’s culture. If the work environment starts to impair your professional development or mental health, or if the leader’s strategies begin to undermine the organization’s long-term viability, you should reconsider your decision to follow.

Engaging strategically with a narcissistic leader means leveraging the positive aspects of their leadership for professional and organizational gain, while mitigating the risks. You should remain flexible, keep an exit strategy in mind, and be ready to move on when the balance tips too far toward the negative consequences of a narcissist’s leadership style.

Tips for working for a narcissist:


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.


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