4 early warning signs of a narcissistic leader

Betrayal is inevitable and certain for any leader.  What is uncertain, however is our response to it.  I have learned that not facing wounds of betrayal from abandonment or abuse causes me to build up walls of defenses for self protection.  The result over time is that I become self focused. OK, we are all narcissistic-the only question is to what degree.

Here are four early warning signs of becoming narcissisitic that I have noticed in my own life and leadership:

1.  Lack of humility.  When I have derailed or plateaued, failure to learn was almost always a factor.  It is a danger to think my past success would be enough to succeed in my new leadership position.  When I arrived and already “knew it all” or was “the expert”, pride had already taken deep root.  Lack of humility manifests itself in two learning disabilities identified by Watkins (2003):

      • Action imperative.  This is a learning disability whose primary symptom is a compulsive need to take action and prove oneself. Times when I suffer from this malady I am habitually anxious and too busy to devote time to relationships and systematic learning.
      • Arriving with “the answer”.  Perhaps most destructive of all learning disabilities, I arrived with my mind made up about how to solve and fix problems in people and in the organization.   #fail

2.  Lack of curiosity.  Lack of humility is often followed by lack of curiosity.  When I think I already know it all,  my curiosity and hunger to learn are curbed.  I lack interest in engaging and listening to the perspective of others.  I may have learned about the people and the organization, but I failed to learn with or from others, especially direct reports.

3.  Lack of honor.  All people have inherent dignity because they are created in the image of God.  Each has unique and distinct gifts, abilities and talents.  I fail to honor others when I value them only for what they produce for me or what they contribute to the organization’s strategic plan and mission.

4.  Lack of love.  In the end, a narcissistic leader fails to love and care for others.  After betrayal, abandonment and criticism, it is a temptation to care only for myself.  It was safer to become emotionally detached in order to avoid harmful effects of being vulnerable to criticism and the desires of others.  However, leadership is all about relationship.  As Strauch (2006) points out with his explanation of Divine Math:

What other warning signs would you add?

Next blog:  How to avoid becoming a self-absorbed, narcissistic leader.  What tips or practices do you suggest?



Allender, D. (2006). Leading with a limp: Turning your struggles into strengths.  Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press.

Strauch, A. (2006). A Christian leader’s guide to leading with love. Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers

Watkins, D. (2003). The first 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

About Steve Morgan

I work in Global Leadership Development with my wife, Terry. We have been married for 36 years and have 4 grown children. I have a Masters in Global Leadership together through Azusa Pacific University. I generally write about 5 “L’s: Living Well, Loving Deeply, Learning Continuously, Leading Courageously, and Leaving a Legacy. I occasionally write about Laughing Loudly. Subscribe on the right side to receive an email whenever there is a new post. I invite you to leave your comments so we can dialogue on the various topics and learn from each other. If you are new to the site, you might start with looking at some of the top posts or doing a search on the right sidebar for one of the 5 “L’s” that interest you. Or you can view the blog archives for topics. Photo Credit: sarahjoellephotography.com
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6 Responses to 4 early warning signs of a narcissistic leader

  1. Brian Virtue says:

    I love this steve. in particular the elements of curiosity and honoring. I don’t think those make the radar very often in how people evaluate their heart in leadership. Curiosity is akin to intellectual flexibility, the capacity to see that there’s probably others ways of seeing! We are led into new insights and revelations that sometimes serve to correct us or humble us. If we aren’t oriented to search for the truth, we will likely never allow ourselves to be humbled by it. The honoring one is great too – this is one of the blessings of serving cross culturally in a non/less-western context such as the Asian American world. I’m blessed to have grown in my understanding of what it means to honor others and I agree, it’s a good indicator we’re narcissistic when we don’t track what it would mean to have that honoring impact on those around us.

    • Steve Morgan says:

      Thanks Brian.
      I have made so many of these mistakes along the way. I learned a lot from Elmer, D. (2006). Cross-cultural servanthood: Serving the world in Christ-like humility. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. and also Watkins who is referenced in the article. The learning about, learning with and learning from is a game changer.

      I am enjoying following and learning from you also. I would love to talk sometime to learn how you do your leadership community. Great idea. Anyway, thanks for your comment and connecting. Have great memories of having both your sisters with us in Mexico. My daughter and Carrie especially bonded during her time here in Mexico. Blessings.

  2. britc17 says:

    I’d include lack of community. We begin to isolate ourselves or only maintain relationships that we see as beneficial to ourselves. I love the blog.

    • Steve Morgan says:

      Hey Brit. Thanks for your insight. You are absolutely right. Isolation has a way of really skewing our perspectives. I subscribed to your blog also. Looks like some real authentic stuff. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Superman vs. Achilles: Why self-awareness is important for a leader | Leader Impact

  4. Pingback: Service is Defined by the One Being Served | Leader Impact

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