Running Head: Narcissistic Leadership


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Running Head: Narcissistic Leadership

  1. 1. 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 Office: 812.941.2681 Fax: 812.941.2529 E-mail: 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
  2. 2. Narcissistic Leadership 2 Abstract 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
  3. 3. Narcissistic Leadership 3 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 organization. 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
  4. 4. Narcissistic Leadership 4 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. Narcissism Defined 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
  5. 5. Narcissistic Leadership 5 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 pre-crisis stage. Pre-Crisis 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, 1999). 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:
  6. 6. Narcissistic Leadership 6 …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 structural concerns. 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 implementing programs. 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
  7. 7. Narcissistic Leadership 7 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 can assume: 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. The 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
  8. 8. Narcissistic Leadership 8 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 crisis. 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, 1999). 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
  9. 9. 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.
  10. 10. Narcissistic Leadership 10 Proposition Seven: Narcissists may affect an organization’s opportunity to learn from the crisis. Organizational Recommendations 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.
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