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Narcissism and Gender in Leadership

Narcissism and Gender in Leadership


Disclaimer: Although this piece relates to certain Presidential races, it is not meant to suggest an endorsement of any candidates.

There are many theories and characteristics of leadership.1 Here, we explore narcissism and gender and consider them from a psychological perspective. Today, we have both female and male candidates vying for candidacy as President of the United States in their respective parties. In the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2 candidates for President were announced—the current President is a woman; our longer-term Medical Director and CEO is a man. These and other “elections” should be of particular interest to psychiatrists.

growing narcissism


Freud discussed narcissism, especially that of minor differences.2 He applied this concept not only to personal relationships, but to the aggression of somewhat similar adjoining communities toward each other.

In a political race, it is the character of narcissism of those running for a great position like President that matters. Here it was what Heinz Kohut3 later presented in his self-psychology that is most relevant.

Narcissism can be considered both the fuel and fire of leadership. Certainly, it fuels the fire to want to be a President. Narcissism is flamed by the idealization and/or mirroring responses of followers. A healthy dose of narcissism is necessary to lead and relates to the traits of ambition and courage.

When coupled with authority and control, however, narcissism can lead to an abuse of power. It is difficult to maintain the enthusiastic and/or symbiotic lock and key of a leader and organization over long periods. There are inevitable failures and disappointments of unkept promises, as well as fantasies that cannot be met. This progression leads to a loss of idealization and mirroring praise of leader by followers.

“Too much” narcissism can lead to other leadership problems. For example, even a mild degree of excessive narcissism is likely to cause a leader to have difficulties cooperating with other leaders, and to contribute to problems in the transfer of power to a successor.

Malignant narcissism renders a leader susceptible to self-esteem injuries and/or narcissistic rage when his need to be idolized is not adequately met. At worst, the malignant narcissism of a beloved leader combined with regressive tendencies of an unstable organization or country can lead to the scapegoating of outsiders—best illustrated by Hitler and Nazi Germany. Thankfully, this fairly rare phenomenon is ultimately likely to cause the leader and the organization to fail, but only in the wake of much destruction.

New research seems to confirm the relevance and accuracy of Kohut’s theories. Ong and colleagues4 suggest that those with a strong degree of narcissism may appear to be good leaders early on but often soon fall out of favor. To avoid this, their charisma should be combined with some other characteristics, such as empathy.

One classic interview question posed in the most recent Republican debate seems to have worked as a barometer for narcissism. The question was “What is your biggest weakness?” Most didn’t answer the question, though one candidate did say that he trusts too much, and if let down, he never ever forgives.

Clearly, as ethical psychiatrists, we should refrain from endorsing a US President (and hence my disclaimer). We failed miserably once when some of us narcissistically and publicly claimed that Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was paranoid. This faux-pas led to the so-called “Goldwater Rule” not to comment publicly on someone whom we had not personally evaluated.


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