The definition of a narcissist is someone with an inflated sense of their own importance. They have a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. They exist and they look just like you.
Typically, you will have been woven into the web of the narcissist before you even realise. They are charming. They ooze charisma. They appear to be good at what they do.
In the workplace they are likely to have been promoted for their competence and achievement. However, like they hide in plain sight, their skills are cleverly disguised. When you start to unravel their complex traits, you tend to find confidence and arrogance are the true reasons for their career progress.
Once in a position of power they can be highly influential. They are generally attractive and talented with an ability to charm people easily. This is where the danger lies. Unidentified and unchecked they can wreak havoc as soon as they are bored, or things don’t go their way.
As ‘Villanelle’ said in ‘Killing Eve’ ‘You should never tell a psychopath that they are a psychopath’, it is the same with narcissists. They have no idea what they are and because one of their key traits is an inability to take responsibility for anything other than the ‘good stuff,’ it would be like lighting the blue touch paper. If a narcissist feels attacked or things don’t go as they planned, like a cornered animal, they will lash out with every ounce of their being.
They will blame you and everyone around you rather than take responsibility and they will take you down rather than allow themselves to be seen as anything other than perfect, all without realising they are even doing it. So, how on earth do you lead someone like this?
Understand and have empathy
This sounds a bit crazy, but the narcissist is highly likely to have suffered at the hands of a caregiver during their childhood and created walls so high that they are now impenetrable. When you take this view, it becomes easier to distance yourself from the emotional web that they may have entangled you in. They would not act this way if they had a healthy mind, so dig deep as a leader and be prepared to make allowances.
Lead yourself and your expectations
When trying to lead a narcissist it is highly likely that you are going to get hurt. The instant human reaction to this is to hurt back, but this is exactly where you need to reign in your ego and lead yourself first.
When you wound a narcissist they won’t heal from that wound, it will fester. Their festering wound will infect others as their behaviour spirals, so for the greater good the leader must avoid wounding, even if this feels at odds with your own values. Taking the high road and choosing your battles will allow overall harmony to be maintained. Manage your expectations and your own need to win. Learning to do this is a great leadership skill and will develop you as much as it manages them.
Set robust boundaries
The narcissist will have an agenda. Your agenda matters just as much. In order to lead you must set firm boundaries with this person, recognising their agenda but enforcing yours as non-negotiable. They will attempt to take advantage of you any chance they get, so being firm and consistent with agreed boundaries will help you to maintain the equilibrium.
Reframe and disconnect
Shape your conversations and reactions with the narcissist around the frame of their mental illness, without letting them know what you are doing. Detach yourself from what you would expect as normal behaviour and meet them where they are at. This will help you understand their innate inability to behave like regular folk, this will reign in your emotional reactions and allow you to lead in a more disconnected way.
Be open to removal
Be prepared for the narcissist to have the equivalent of a tantrum, you will need to see this as a wounded child, view it from a parental lens.
As much as this person can be a business asset and valuable to the workplace, your greatest defence will be your ability to walk away from the relationship. They will want you to need them, your ability to ‘not’ need them will allow you to lead them.