3 Ways to Distinguish Between Healthy & Unhealthy Narcissism in Potential Leaders

Whether in business, politics, or work groups, there is a natural tendency to select narcissistic leaders. They are attracted to leadership as part of their personalities—their drive for extra respect and extra attention; their belief in their own ideas; their enjoyment of winning contests; their ability to charm and persuade people; and their ability to focus narrowly on a goal.

People looking for leaders are attracted to narcissists for similar reasons—we like being charmed and persuaded; we enjoy giving them our rapt attention; we like how hard they work to become our leaders; we are attracted to their stories of overcoming past challenges and their visions of future success; and the average person doesn’t want the headaches of being a leader (or competing with a narcissists to get there).

A small dose of narcissism works. On the other hand, some leaders have too much, which means that sooner or later, it will become obvious that they are very dysfunctional.

Can you tell the difference?

It’s not easy to tell the difference on the surface. One approach is to work to understand and then recognize key differences. There are three characteristics that distinguish people with too much narcissism:

1. Lack of self-awareness and self-reflection: They can’t see their part in the problem.

2. Lack of adaptation or change: Even though their behavior is dysfunctional, they don’t change it—because they don’t think they have a problem.

3. They believe the cause of all their problems is outside of themselves: Since they don’t see their part and they don’t change, they either feel helpless or aggressively try to change other people to help themselves feel better.

Those who have a target of blame are the ones we think of as high-conflict people—individuals who generate increasing conflicts as they attack or attempt to eliminate their targets.

In today’s world of rapid change and innovation, and the need for productivity to gain competitive advantage, leaders need to be flexible and fast learners. Those with unhealthy narcissism need not apply.


Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. is an attorney, therapist and mediator in San Diego, California. Co-founder of High Conflict Institute, he is author of several books on narcissism, including  It’s All Your Fault at Work! Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People with co-author, Georgi Distefano. They are co-authors of New Ways for Work, a method for managing employees.