Narcissistic Leadership 1
Running Head: Narcissistic Leadership
Narcissistic Leaders & Effective Crisis Management:
A Review of Potential Problems and Pitfalls
Granville King, III
Indiana University Southeast
Department of Communication Studies
Knobview Hall – 110Q
4201 Grant Line Road
New Albany, IN. 47150
Granville King, III (Ph.D., Indiana University) is an Associate Professor of
Organizational Communication at Indiana University Southeast. His current research
focuses upon peer-reporting of employee wrongdoing and team leadership within
organizations. His publications may be found in various management and
communication journals, including the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of
Business Communication, and the Journal of Applied Communication Research.
Forward all correspondence to email@example.com
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Being able to effectively respond in the event of a crisis is important to an organization’s
survival. In the event of a crisis, effective leadership by senior officials performs a
significant role in an organization’s attempt to return to a state of normal operation.
Effectiveness, however, can be hampered by a leader’s behavior and attitude towards
colleagues, and other employees within the organization. This paper explores how
narcissistic leaders may affect crisis management within an organization. Using the
literature on narcissism and crisis management, this paper examines how a narcissist’s
style of leadership may affect the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis stages of crisis
management. The paper concludes by offering suggestions on how to handle narcissistic
leaders within an organizational setting.
Key Words: narcissism, crisis, leader, organization, and management
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Narcissistic Leaders & Effective Crisis Management:
A Review of Potential Problems and Pitfalls
Effective crisis management has become paramount for organizations operating in
today’s global market. The media is a constant reminder that organizations are not
immune to crises. On any given day, we can either hear or read about organizations
facing lawsuits, layoffs, bankruptcy, violence, and so forth. How an organization and its
leaders respond to a crisis, may affect not only the company’s bottom line, but also its
overall image and reputation (Coombs, 1999; King, 2004).
In the event of a crisis1, effective leadership becomes central to the operation of
the organization (King, 2002). The crisis leader must be able to communicate accurate
and prompt information to numerous constituencies, both internal and external to the
organization (Pearson & Mitroff, 1993). In a sense, the crisis leader becomes the
organization’s public face; that is, providing and explaining the crisis, responding to
accusations of wrongdoing, justifying and explaining choices, and offering assurances the
problem has been resolved. The crisis leader also establishes an overall tone for the crisis
– by remaining calm, personifying authority and control, and reinforcing the
organization’s core values (Seeger, Sellow, & Ulmer, 2003).
The relevance of effective leadership during a crisis has been presented in the
management communication literature. For example, an earlier study conducted by
Hamblin (1958) noted organizational members are prone to replace an ineffective leader
in the event of a crisis. Others researches (Seeger, Sellow, & Ulmer, 2003) have
suggested that because quick decisions must be made during a crisis, an authoritarian
style of leadership may be more appropriate. Closely related, Weiss (2001) noted the
importance of effective leadership during a crisis, by providing step-by-step
recommendations for senior officials. Finally, scholars (Roberts & Bradley, 1988) have
suggested during a crisis, the situation or context may perform a significant role in
regards to perceptions of leadership; for example, Pillai (1996) found during a crisis,
perceptions of a charismatic style of leadership were often displayed by leaders within an
A considerable amount of research has evolved over the years discussing the
leadership styles of charismatic leaders (Conger & Kanungo, 1987; House, 1977; Shamir,
House, & Authur, 1993). For example, earlier research by House claims that charismatic
leadership is emotional, in that “followers are inspired enthusiastically to give
unquestioned obedience, loyalty, commitment, and devotion to the leader and to the
cause that the leader represents” (p. 191). In a similar vein, Conger and Kanungo (1987,
1988, 1994) have also discussed behavioral attributes of charismatic leaders. For
instance, “charismatic leaders differ from other leaders by their ability to formulate and
articulate an inspirational vision and by behaviors and actions that foster an impression
that they and the mission are extraordinary” (1994, p. 442). Finally, Nadler and Tushman
(1990) also perceive a charismatic leader as a person with vision (that is, articulating a
compelling vision, setting high expectations, and modeling consistent behavior), an
energizer (that is, demonstrating personal excitement, expressing personal confidence,
and seeking, finding, and using success), and finally, supporter (that is, expressing
personal support, empathizing, and expressing confidence in people).
In the event of a crisis, a charismatic style of leadership may enhance an
organization’s response to return to a state of normal operation. Yet, on the other hand, a
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charismatic style of leadership can also produce disastrous outcomes for both employees
and the organization in the event of a crisis (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). For example,
charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism, which can lead them to promote
highly self-serving and grandiose aims. “The leader’s behaviors can become
exaggerated, lose touch with reality, or become vehicles for pure personal gain” (Conger
& Kanungo, p. 211). Furthermore, “narcissism can lead charismatic leaders to
overestimate their capabilities and underestimate the role of critical skills, resources, and
changing marketplaces” (Conger & Kanungo, p. 218). Finally, narcissistic leaders, who
have an overpowering sense of self-importance, coupled with the need to be the center of
attention, will often ignore the viewpoints of others within the organization, as well as the
development of leadership abilities in their followers (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Such
behaviors may not only harm the leader, but also potential followers, company
employees, as well as the organization.
Although Conger (1989, 1993) has examined the issue of charismatic leadership
and organizational crisis, reports that examine narcissistic leaders and organizational
crises are either highly scarce or nonexistent. This paper thus proposes to eliminate this
void in our literature, by addressing the potential effects of narcissism on crisis
management. Scholars will find the information presented in the paper as useful in
aiding their understanding of how narcissistic leaders can hamper the crisis management
process. Likewise, practitioners will find the information useful in selecting and training
key leaders in the wake of an organizational crisis.
This paper will be divided into three sections; first, narcissism will be defined.
Second, using the current literature on narcissism and leadership, the paper will examine
how narcissistic leaders may influence the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis stages of crisis
management. Based upon the literature, propositions will be forwarded within each
stage. Finally, the paper will conclude by offering suggestions on how to handle
narcissistic leaders within an organization. We begin by defining narcissism.
In the late 1890’s, the term narcissism was first introduced to describe a personal
form of self-admiration. During this time period, reports published by various clinical
and social psychologists, such as Ellis and Nacke, later encouraged Sigmund Freud to
study the personality and behavioral traits of narcissists (Raskin & Terry, 1988). Conger
and Kanungo (1998) note narcissism as a disorder was later advanced by the work of
Heinz Kohut. Today, we use the term narcissism to describe a pervasive pattern of overt
grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance behavior displayed by an individual or
individuals (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
Various personality characteristics have been associated with narcissists. For
example, narcissists are often defined as being preoccupied with dreams of success,
power, beauty, and brilliance. Also, narcissists seek and desire attention and admiration
from others. Furthermore, threats to their self-esteem are often followed with feelings of
rage, defiance, shame, and humiliation. Narcissists will also display a sense of
entitlement, with expectations for special treatment, without assuming reciprocal
responsibilities. They are also unwilling to return the favors of others, and are
unempathetic and interpersonally exploitative. Narcissists also have a grandiose sense of
self-importance or uniqueness, where they exaggerate their special talents and
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achievements. Finally, narcissists are prone to rage, shame, inferiority, and humiliation
when they are criticized by others (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
Surveying these characteristics, we can assume individuals who have a
narcissistic personality, may have a profound impact upon the operation of an
organization. For instance, narcissistic managers and supervisors may have problems
interacting with colleagues, as well as communicating with lower level staff and line
workers. The results of such behavior may cause the organization to lack in achieving a
desired goal. In a similar vein, a leader who promotes a grandiose unrealistic vision may
cause organizational members not to follow a specific request. Such an event may cause
the organization not only to lack in achieving a specific goal, but may have a detrimental
financial effect upon the company. Also, due to their arrogance, sense of entitlement,
lack of concern for others’ feelings and abilities, along with a constant desire to be in the
limelight, narcissists will find it difficult to work effectively in teams (Lubit, 2002).
Finally, narcissists not only do a poor job at developing people, but they “alienate
subordinates as a result of their devaluation of others, insistence on having their own
way, lack of empathy, and willingness to exploit others” (Lubit, p. 130).
In light of this information, a narcissist’s can have a significant effect upon an
organization planning or responding to a crisis. A narcissist’s may not only affect how an
organization properly prepares for a crisis, but also how the organization responds, and
the evaluation of that response. In the following sections, this paper will examine how a
narcissist’s may affect each stage of the crisis management process. We begin with the
The pre-crisis stage of crisis management focuses upon the organization being
able to detect potential crises, address methods of prevention, and being prepared in the
event of a crisis. Although no organization can be fully prepared for every crisis, an
organization can be prepared for many crises (Pauchant & Mitroff, 1992), especially
those that may be imminent or probable, due to the nature of the organization’s operation.
Detecting potential crises is the first component in the pre-crisis stage. An
effective crisis manager is able to survey conditions that may lead to a crisis. Warning
signs or prodromes (Barton, 1993; Fink, 1986) should alert a crisis manager that
conditions exists for a potential crisis. According to Coombs (1999) “crisis managers
must scan for information that might contain prodromes. A variety of information
sources must be scanned due to the diversity of crises that could befall an organization.
The crisis manager must scan the environment and internal events for warning signs” (p.
17). For example, information from customer complaints can signal a potential crisis in
product quality or customer relations. In this case, the crisis manager must determine the
strength of the warning sign and its likelihood of developing into a crisis (Coombs,
After the warning signs have been detected, the organization must decide upon
specific courses of action, in order to eliminate the possibility of a crisis. In this case, the
crisis manager must decide upon programs that will work in the best interest of the
organization (Coombs, 1999). For example, an organizational culture that promotes open
and positive interaction with its members may help in minimizing a potential crisis
(Fearn-Banks, 1996). Other specific tactics and/or actions an organization may adopt to
prevent a crisis would include:
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…reducing the use of hazardous material and processes;
initiating safety training and rewards for employees with
stellar safety records; allowing the free flow of information
from employees to management with no punishment of
employees or members who deliver bad news; following up
on past crises or problems; and fostering the continued
development of organizational policies allowing for
updates and changes based on variances of publics and
mission. (Fearn-Banks, p. 6)
Crisis preparation completes the pre-crisis stage of crisis management. Within the
crisis preparation stage, the organization prepares itself for the inevitable, namely a crisis.
According to Pauchant and Mitroff (1992), effective crisis managers have prepared their
organizations to be proactive, not reactive, in the event of a crisis. Within the crisis
preparation stage, the manager should diagnose vulnerabilities, assess crisis types, select
and train the crisis team, select and train the spokesperson, develop a crisis management
plan (CMP), and review the communication system (Coombs, 1999). Pauchant and
Mitroff also provide a checklist for the ideal crisis management strategy. Categories
included in their checklist are effective communication, strategic planning, evaluation
and diagnostic issues, psychology and the organization’s culture, and technical and
Surveying the above information, narcissism may affect the pre-crisis stage of
crisis management. A majority of the pre-crisis stage focuses upon planning,
implementing, and advocating programs in the event of a crisis. A crisis leader must be
able to effectively construct and design programs that will ensure the organization will be
able to respond proactively during a crisis. Narcissists, however, may have problems
working within the pre-crisis stage. According to Lubit (2002), narcissists are weak at
Their desire for excitement to fill their sense of boredom
and emptiness, along with their lack of attachment to a set
of values, leads to rapid changes in interests. As a result,
[narcissists] tend to make sudden and repeated changes in
organizational plans, never finishing the process of building
needed core competencies or finishing projects. Moreover,
[narcissists) may fail to pay attention to details, being
interested primarily in the grand plans. (p. 130)
As a result, failure to follow through on the development and implementation of projects
can markedly undercut and influence how an organization should and/or could respond in
the event of a crisis (Lubit, 2002).
Kets de Vries and Miller (1985) offer similar comments in regards decision-
making and planning by narcissists. According to Kets de Vries and Miller, narcissists
may do very little scanning or analysis of the internal or external environments, before
making decisions that may impact the organization. Such beliefs may have a detrimental
effect upon an organization planning for a potential crisis. Kets de Vries and Miller
(1985), along with Lubit (2002), also note because of narcissists’ sense of grandiosity,
exhibitionism (Emmons, 1984), and preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success,
many projects undertaken may fail or go uncompleted. Various circumstances may
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encourage the failure of a project, for example, self-serving needs or vision by a leader;
too many resources are placed at risks for too little reason; the leader’s assessment of the
environment is unrealistic and/or distorted (Conger & Kanungo, 1988); only the leader
can make informed decisions; and finally, even when the project is failing, the leader is
reluctant to admit the evidence, or admit she or he failed in properly preparing the
organization for a crisis (Kets de Vries & Miller, 1985). Based upon this information, we
Proposition One: Narcissists may affect an organization’s
proper preparation for a crisis.
Proposition Two: Narcissists may affect an organization’s
initial response to a crisis.
During the crisis stage, effective leadership by the crisis leader becomes central to
the operation of the organization. The skills, attitudes, and behaviors displayed by the
crisis leader become visible not only to members within the organization, but also to key
stakeholders external to the corporation, and the general public. The crisis leader must
engage in “symbolic activities, such as framing the meaning of the event and expressing
concern for those harmed, while remaining calm and conveying a sense of order and
control” (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003, p. 249). Therefore, a crisis leader must
display a sense of confidence, while at the same time expressing signs of empathy
towards those who were hurt or potentially harmed by the crisis.
During this same period, due the organization’s urgency to contain and resolve
the crisis, followers of the crisis leader may become confused regarding proper
procedures and thus, will rely upon their leader’s skills and knowledge (Seeger, Sellnow,
& Ulmer, 2003). The crisis leader must be knowledgeable and competent in how to
effectively respond to various stakeholders, the media, the public, as well as employees
internal to the organization (Dougherty, 1992).
The crisis leader will often rely upon the organization’s crisis management plan
(CMP). An effective crisis management plan should be detailed with appropriate
information, such as important telephone numbers, media contacts, media response
sheets, spokesperson information, containment procedures, evaluation forms, emergency
telephone numbers, crisis control center information, and a host of other valuable
material (Fearn-Banks, 1996). During this period, the leader must be visible at all
activities regarding the organization, such as tours of the site, meeting with families, and
any press conferences the corporation may schedule as a result of the crisis. Other
functions a crisis leader would be responsible for would include “…setting priorities,
maintaining decisional vigilance, coordinating with the crisis teams and other groups, and
facilitating flows of information” (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, p. 250). Although basic
decisions may be part of the crisis plan, due to the dynamic nature of the crisis,
unforeseen issues and problems may surface. The crisis leader must be decisive and
prompt in establishing priorities for any corrective action that may be required by the
organization. Such actions will call for the crisis leader to be open and accessible to
followers, key stakeholders, and other constituencies internal and external to the
organization. The crisis leader must also frame the meaning of crisis and facilitate
renewal through public commitments, while at the same time maintain strategic
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flexibility. In short, the crisis leader is expected to successfully lead the organization
through the crisis (Seeger, Sellow, & Ulmer, 2003).
Surveying the above information, narcissists may encounter problems in leading
an organization successfully through a crisis. Research suggests narcissists’ latch-on to
tasks that can engage their chronic ego concerns, and at the same time have a positive
experience while doing those tasks (Morf, Weir, & Davidov, 2000). In other words,
narcissists are more likely to have a positive experience in completing a task when it
affords them the opportunity to display their ability and document their superiority over
others; while they are less likely to engage in a task merely for its own sake, without
some form of evaluation attached to the task (Morf, et al., 2000).
Negative feedback, however, may affect the entire evaluation process. In the
event of negative feedback, narcissists may become very threatened because one’s self-
esteem and ego are on the line. The narcissists may try to alleviate this threat by
discounting the feedback, and devaluing and/or disengaging from the task (Morf, Weir, &
Davidov, 2000). During a crisis, a narcissistic leader may be more likely to continue in
pursuit of controlling and eliminating a crisis, when his or her ability is perceived as
superior and outstanding by others inside and outside the organization. On the other
hand, a narcissistic leader is less likely to engage in a task if there is the potential of
hurting his or her self-esteem and ego, due to the diversity of issues surrounding the
Other researchers have echoed similar sentiments in regard to narcissism and
performance (Wallace & Baumeister, 2002). For example, Wallace and Baumeister
found narcissists performed relatively poorly when they were the sole recipient of the
feedback, but outperformed everyone when there was a possibility the feedback would be
made public. This suggests that narcissists are solely motivated to win the admiration of
others, rather than trying to prove something to themselves. Based upon this information,
we can assume:
Proposition Three: Narcissists may be more committed to
effective crisis management if positive feedback regarding
task ability is made public.
Proposition Four: Narcissists may be less committed to
effective crisis management if negative feedback regarding
task ability is made public.
Post-Crisis (The Aftermath)
The final stage of crisis management is often termed the post-crisis or the
aftermath. During the post-crisis stage of crisis management, the crisis leader, along with
senior officials within the organization, evaluate how the organization responded to the
crisis. The evaluation process provides the organization with insight into what efforts
need to be corrected, and what needs to be done in the event of a similar crisis (Coombs,
The evaluation process focuses upon two important criteria, namely performance
and impact. Within performance, the crisis manager specifically evaluates how well the
organization dealt with the crisis. The performance evaluation involves examining the
efficacy of the crisis management plan (CMP) and its execution. On the other hand,
crisis impact includes the evaluation and review of the actual damaged caused by the
crisis. If crisis management efforts were effective, the actual crisis damage should be
Narcissistic Leadership 9
less than what was anticipated. The amount of damage from the crisis will provide a
tangible indicator of whether or not the CMP was a success or a failure (Coombs, 1999).
During this period, the crisis leader will engage in a number of symbolic and
instrumental activities associated with the organization’s recovery and renewal (Seeger,
Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003). For example, restoring the organization’s image and
reputation due to the crisis is important during this period. In order to restore the
organization’s image, the crisis leader may have to offer an apology, corporate
compensation, or employ other image restoration strategies (Benoit, 1997; Coombs,
1995; King, 2004; Seeger, et al., 2003). Also, during this period, the crisis leader may be
called upon to testify about the crisis and the organization’s management efforts. This
procedure allows important constituencies to the organization to summarize what was
learned from the crisis, discuss important discoveries, and review prospective post-crisis
visions for the organization (Seeger, et al., 2003).
Narcissistic leaders may have difficulty operating within the post-crisis stage. As
noted earlier, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the crisis, a crisis leader
may have to apologize for events or circumstances that occurred during a crisis. Also,
the crisis leader may find him or her self at fault in regards to how a specific situation
was handled or improperly handled. Narcissists are less likely to commit to either of the
above situations – that is, offering an apology or place themselves at fault regarding an
issue. Research has found that narcissists are more likely to attribute blame to external
sources if their performance is likely to be perceived or evaluated as poor (Stucke, 2003).
From a crisis management perspective, narcissists are more likely to place the blame on
another party or individual if their performance during the crisis was poor. On the other
hand, if positive responses emerge from the crisis, narcissists are more likely to attribute
success because of their own abilities (Ladd, Welsh, Vitulli, Labbe, & Law, 1997) and
not the result of followers inside the organization. To acknowledge persons within the
organization would remove the limelight from off the narcissist, which may threaten his
or her grandiose self-image.
Closely related to the issue of blame is criticism of the narcissist’s behavior. The
issue of criticism has been examined in the literature on narcissism. For example,
Maccoby (2004) notes one of the central weaknesses of narcissists is their inability to be
open to criticism. Maccoby states “narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism or
slights, which feel to them like knives threatening their self-image and their confidence in
their visions” (p. 97). Morf and Rhodewalt (2001) also note when narcissists are
criticized for their failure, they often find ways of undoing it. For instance, narcissists
may respond to the negative feedback by derogating the evaluator, or the entire
evaluation process. Or, they may distort and restructure past events to soften the blow.
From a crisis management perspective, due to the lack of open criticism that should be
prevalent between the organization’s crisis leader and his or her followers, a complete
critical assessment of the organizational crisis is hampered (Conger, 1990; Lubit, 2002;
Sankowsky, 1995). Based upon this information, we can assume:
Proposition Five: Narcissists are less likely to take the
blame for adverse events that occurred during a crisis.
Proposition Six: Narcissists are less likely to be critical of
their leadership role during a crisis.
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Proposition Seven: Narcissists may affect an organization’s
opportunity to learn from the crisis.
Organizations threatened with narcissism have various options that may be
employed in the event of a crisis. First, an organization may encourage the use of a
trusted sidekick to work along with the narcissistic leader. According to Maccoby
(2004), many narcissists often develop a close relationship with one person, a trusted
sidekick, who acts as an anchor in keeping their behavior grounded. During a crisis, the
trusted sidekick could inform the narcissists when she or he has overstepped and placed
the organization’s reputation in danger. Furthermore, the trusted sidekick could assist the
leader in addressing sensitive issues that may have developed as a result of the crisis. In
both situations, the trusted sidekick must get the narcissists to believe the ideas forwarded
do coincide with his or her views (of the narcissists) and general interests.
Another option available to organizations is to consider reducing the degree of
power of the narcissists. A number of structural devices could be implemented to
accomplish this task. For example, an organization might consider redistributing the
power within the organization, so that more than one person is involved in making
strategic decisions, which may affect the entire organization (Kets de Vries & Miller,
1985). “Cross-functional committees, task forces, and executive committees can provide
a useful forum in which a multitude of managers can express their viewpoints, providing
opportunities for the narcissistic leaders … to learn from and have their influence
mitigated by others” (Kets de Vries & Miller, p. 599). From a crisis management
perspective, the narcissistic leader would not have complete control over situations that
may be potentially threatening to the organization. Other leaders within the organization,
who have a vested interest in the organization’s survival, could inform the narcissist’s
how best to handle a particular situation.
Organizations might also consider implementing a 360-degree feedback survey to
employees within the company (DuBrin, 2004). Narcissists are unlikely to contain their
problematic behaviors when communicating with employees within the organization,
especially in the event of a crisis. Surveys could be administered to employees after each
rehearsal and actual crisis. All members would be expected to provide anonymous,
confidential information on their superiors’ performance (Lubit, 2002). Information
collected from the survey may be shared with the crisis leader, and assist upper-
management in reexamining their choice as the crisis management leader.
Finally, organizations interested in retaining narcissists, but are also concerned
with their behavior, might consider implementing some form of in-house counseling
service (Lubit, 2002; Sankowsky, 1995). Counseling or professional service would send
a strong signal that senior officials are concerned with the welfare of their employees, the
organization, as well as the narcissist’s. Furthermore, counseling or professional service
would allow the narcissist’s the opportunity to acknowledge and possibly reform his or
her behavior, before being permanently removed from the organization.
In closing, this paper has examined the effects of narcissism on crisis
management. It is hoped that organizations have gained some insight into the potential
problems that could develop as a result of narcissism. Finally, it is hoped that this paper
has provided the impetus for organizations to survey their current leadership, and make
appropriate changes when planning for crisis management.
Narcissistic Leadership 11
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