Ego Defences - The Narcissistic Leader in Organisations

Author: Dr Corina Grace
Published on: 14th of December 2020

Ego Defences: The Narcissistic Leader in Organisations

Famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood. (Winston Churchill)

Executives arguing in the boardroom over issues of corporate strategy are unconsciously still dealing with parental figures and siblings over issues of power.(Manfred Kets De Vries, 2006)

The quotes above refer to unconscious defence processes at work and the power they can enact in both individual and organisational lives. Ego defence mechanisms protect the self from anxiety and distort reality, providing a refuge from situations with which one cannot currently cope. One obvious ego defence in the leadership literature is narcissism.

The qualities associated with narcissistic leaders are:

1) a sense of entitlement, 

2) superiority and arrogance,

3) self-admiration and self-absorption, and

4) authority and being the centre of attention (Emmons, 1997).1

When these aspects of a personality are combined with an abuse of power and a lack of empathy, it can create a toxic culture. Narcissistic leaders, because they have a weak inner core, cannot tolerate dissenters and surround themselves with people who reaffirm their belief in themselves. Jeffrey Skilling, as CEO of Enron, was known for his risk-taking and for rewarding this behaviour, while critics were publicly humiliated. Through Skilling and his executive team, Enron as an organisation became narcissistic and inward-looking.

There are close links between the behaviours of leaders, their followers, and the situation.

Followers who lack self-esteem, engage in power games, idealise the leader, or have unmet psychological needs can contribute to the development of a bad leader. In a conducive environment, such as increased market competition, the outcome can be destructive.

Charismatic leaders who exhibit the dark side of leadership can become blinded by their own vision and power, and in turn can blind others (Janis, 1972).2

1 Emmons, R.A. (1987) ‘Narcissism: Theory and measurement’, Journal of Personality and Social

Psychology, 52, pp. 11–17.

2 Janis, I. (1972) Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

3 Bergen, T. (2011) Spills and Spin: The Inside Story of BP. London: Random House.

4 Bryce, R. (2008) Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron. Public Affairs.

5 Blakeley, K. (2007) Leadership Blind Spots and What to Do About Them. Chichester: Wiley.

Leadership Gone Wrong

There are many examples of bad corporate leadership or narcissistic leadership, such as:

  • BP: Lord Browne and Tony Hayward (Bergen, 2011)3
  • Enron: Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (Bryce, 2008)4
  • Barings Bank: Christopher Hitchens and Nick Leeson (Blakeley, 2007)5
  • Toyota: Akio Toyoda (Taylor, 2010)6
  • WorldCom: Bernie Ebbers (Jeter, 2003)7
  • Bristol Royal Infirmary: Roylance and Wiseheart (described in Blakeley, 2007).

The more recent North Staffordshire Hospital scandal is similar. The report can be downloaded from

Higgs (2009)8 summarises the research findings on what he calls “bad leadership” and highlights four causes: abuse of power, inflicting damage on others, over-exercise of control to satisfy personal needs, and rule-breaking to serve one’s own purposes. These are behaviours that appear to be driven by the tendency to put one’s own self-interest above the interests of the company or other stakeholders. Higgs points out that these behaviours are often driven by an inability to control the personal motivations that caused the leader to seek power in the first place. In the psychoanalytic literature these would be called unconscious primitive drives.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Narcissism

Freud was the first to coin the term narcissism in psychoanalytic writing. It originates in the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissism in early development is seen as a healthy state, and we all have some element of narcissism within us (Freud, 1914).9 Freud believed that parents’ love towards their child could be seen as a mirror of their own narcissism. They stimulate omnipotence in the child and a sense of self-love (ibid.). Pathological narcissism, according to Freud, is an extreme magnification of healthy narcissism. Unhealthy narcissism can arise when the parents reject the child or are inconsistent in giving the child their love.

Kernberg, Kohut, and Millon see pathological narcissism as a possible outcome in responseto inconsistent and dysfunctional interactions between the child and their caregivers (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001).10 Klein (1979) 11 object relations theory describes narcissism as a split in the ego where the self plays a more important part than the other, while for Winnicott 12 narcissism is a form of false self that develops as a consequence of the mother being unable to provide “good enough mothering” for the child. 

 6 Taylor, A. (2010) ‘How Toyota lost its way’, Fortune, 162 (2), pp. 84–91.

7 Jeter, L. (2003) Disconnected: Deceit and Betrayal at WorldCom. John Wiley & Sons.

8 Higgs, M. (2009) ‘The good, the bad and the ugly: Leadership and narcissism’, Journal of Change

Management, 9(2), pp. 165–178.

9 Freud, S. (1914) On Narcissism: An Introduction.

10 Morf, C. and Rhodewalt, F. (2001) ‘Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic selfregulatory

processing model’, Psychological Inquiry, 12(4), pp. 177–196.

11 Klein, M. (1975) Love, Guilt and Reparations and Other Works 1921 – 1945. The Free Press.

12 Winnicott, D (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World. Penguin Books.

Narcissistic defences have been defined as “those processes whereby the idealised aspects of the self are preserved and the limitations of the self and other’s denied” (Shaw, 1999).13 They include “denial, distortion, and delusional projection” (Barry & Farmer, 2002).14

Splitting is also a defence mechanism of narcissists, who often see people and situations in blaterms, with no shades of grey. Projection is often used in conjunction with splitting (Lubit, 2002).15

The literature on narcissism is vast and describes a range of subcategories, including John Millon’s (1667 in Paradise Lost) unprincipled, amorous, compensatory, elitist, and fanatic narcissist. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore this aspect of personality in any great depth. What is of interest is how leadership can go bad and how narcissism can be the by-product of such leadership, acting as a defence with, as we have seen, catastrophic consequences.

It would be of further interest to explore in more depth why there is such an attraction to narcissistic leaders. What is it about the followers or societies or groups today that permits – and in some cases idealises – the narcissistic leader? Could it be said, for example, that Barack Obama is a healthy or unhealthy narcissist, and has he been a victim or a malady of the US’s need for a saviour, or of the mythical belief in the knight in shining armour? The current celebrity-driven culture is fertile ground for the development of narcissistic defences.

The cult of the brand creates an object relations mindset, where not only do we have designer labels for clothes, bags, and so on, but babies are seen as  designer accessories.

Narcissistic Leadership on the Couch

Because leaders influence the lives of others, and generally have greater power, there is growing interest in how we can ensure that they use their power and authority ethically.

Some of this increased interest is due to growing cynicism arising from the events caused by bad corporate leadership listed above (Bains & Company Consulting)

Different types of ethical leadership abound, including servant leadership, spiritual leadership, and authentic leadership. Common to all these types is the importance of consistency between values and behaviour, though the emphasis in each is slightly different.

Servant leadership concerns the development of the follower, nurturing and protecting them.

Spiritual leadership is about creating meaning in the work that followers do. Authentic leadership describes the behaviours of ideal leaders who are guided by strong, positive values. Common to all of these is self-knowledge and self-awareness – a particularly tricky challenge when it comes to the narcissistic leader.

13 Shaw, J.A. (1999) Sexual Aggression. American Psychiatric Publishing, pp. 28–29.

14 Barry P.D. and Farmer S. (2002) Mental Health and Mental Illness, p. 175.

15 Lubit R. (2002) ‘The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers’,

Academy of Management Executive, 16(1), pp. 127–138.

The challenge of treating narcissistic leaders is similar to that of treating a narcissist. By their nature they are hard to access because of their self-protective façade and strong ego defences, and because they don’t see that there is any problem. That does not mean it is impossible, but where to start? Warren Bennis (1989) 16 says, “The process of becoming a leader is very much the same as becoming an integrated human being.” Sinclair (2007)17 builds on Bennis’s idea, arguing that understanding how our childhoods and pasts have shaped us is very important in understanding who we are and how we act as adults and leaders today.

Every leader has a childhood, and the family is our first experience of leadership. We learn important lessons about leadership at an early age, and this learning – whether positive or negative – can and does get stirred up in organisations. By taking the opportunity to explore and understand our history and make-up, we can open new ways of doing leadership.

According to Sinclair (2007): by making more conscious our understanding of personal background, how we connect with others in groups and operate as leaders, we avoid acting out inappropriate impulses in leadership roles. Attending to early patterns can help to explain cases of both leadership failure and those where leadership liberates.

George (2003)18 asserts that developing leadership effectiveness is a lifetime’s work. One is not born with a fully fledged set of leadership traits; rather, one has to hone one’s skills through what George calls “crucible experiences” that test one’s integrity and courage.

16 Bennis W., (1989) On Becoming a Leader. Basic Books.

17 Sinclair, A. (2007) Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading the Liberates. NSW: Allen & Unwin.

18 George, B. (2003) Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

19 Gioia, D.A. (1992) ‘Pinto fires and personal ethics: A script analysis of missed opportunities’, Journal of Business Ethics, 11, pp. 379–389.

Strong leaders emerge only after coming through challenging life experiences and learning tough lessons. One of the most important aspects of leadership is self-awareness and understanding one’s values. Authenticity in leadership is easily undermined by social pressures in the workplace (Gioia, 1992).19 It is easy to comply, conform, or simply to forget one’s values and priorities.Those who have done “the work” and know themselves are better placed to withstand such pressures and to choose a different path. I believe there is fertile ground for group psychoanalytic work to take place in order to address Bennis’s, Sinclair’s, and George’s assertions about being and doing leadership in a more healthy and ethical way.