Narcissistic Leadership: Generosity Means Thinking Beyond Yourself

5 min read
4 February 2023

Only a confident, generous person can truly cheer others on, especially if they may be a competitor in the business world. We may find ourselves smiling on the outside, but inside we may be seething at their success and our own failure (or simply lack of the same kind of success). It’s an important lesson to remember that generosity means thinking beyond yourself and letting others have their moment in the spotlight.

The Pitfalls of Narcissistic Leadership

The key to effective leadership is remembering that leadership means serving other people before serving yourself. Narcissistic leaders tend to portray the traits of a ‘winning’ leader—they are bold, dominant, arrogant and seem to get things done.

In reality, this bluster doesn’t actually translate to improved results in a group, and research has shown how a leader’s narcissism can inhibit collaboration in a group, which negatively impacts performance.1

When we think of successful leaders, most of us equate a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ or that elusive quality that makes us perceive them as someone to look up to. However, people like this may show an entirely different side of themselves once in control.

According to field studies, narcissistic CEOs are more likely to engage in white-collar crime. They were more likely to manipulate earnings, engage in fraud and attempt to avoid taxes. A study in 2013 found that presidents in the United States who were more narcissistic had a higher likelihood of abusing their authority.2

A research study from 20203 examined the potentially destructive consequences related to narcissistic leaders. The way a leader acts does impact the people they work with, and when leaders are motivated by their own interests, morals may be sidestepped or even overlooked completely.

Grandiose narcissism is characterised by risk-taking, impulsiveness, self-confidence, low empathy for others and a sense of entitlement. Leaders with grandiose narcissism are typically assertive and overconfident and can become hostile when challenged.

When people like this do not get the attention they feel they deserve, they may also become angry and lash out at others, verbally and physically. The link between narcissism and crime has been well established, with studies finding higher levels of crime were linked with more narcissistic individuals.4

According to a survey on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, narcissism levels rose 30 per cent from 1979 to 2006.

What Kind of Person Are You?

It’s more than just our leadership style. How generous we are likely paints all aspects of our life, from how we behave in our homes to how we treat others in public spaces. It’s easy to spot narcissism in politics, but the same can be said for many people in management. When leaders refuse to acknowledge and celebrate the successes of others, they are probably less empathetic and compassionate as well.

These feelings likely harken back to childhood days. We teach children to share their toys, but then as adults, we find it completely acceptable for a few to hoard great wealth or resources. Why have we lost the joy of sharing and being generous?

In mythology, Narcissus was handsome and vain and fell in love with his reflection in the water. He was so infatuated with himself that he couldn’t stop looking into the water, even though he eventually died. Then, a flower bloomed in that spot, commemorating his demise.

Extreme narcissism is known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and research has shown that levels of narcissism have increased among Western youth over the past twenty years. However, behavioural scientists are not clear as to the origins of narcissism, but research is seeking answers.5

Social learning theory says that children are more likely to become narcissistic when their parents overvalue them. This means that parents see their children as perfect, always better than other kids, and elevate them onto a pedestal. The psychoanalytic theory states that children are more likely to become narcissistic when their parents lack warmth toward them. In this case, children lack attention from their parents and seek it elsewhere.

Interestingly, parental narcissism only weakly correlated to children becoming narcissists. Instead, parental overvaluation contributed most significantly to the development of narcissism. However, there are many other factors, including genetics, other personality traits, and the environment around children.

The line between positive self-esteem and narcissism is a grey area. We want to praise children, but not to overvalue them or their contributions. There is a definitive social aspect to narcissism. As adults, we must understand what behaviours support healthy self-esteem and behaviours that encourage narcissism.

As leaders, recognising the traits of narcissism within ourselves is essential. We are all a product of our childhood, but as adults, we should be able to look within and determine what is governing our actions.

False Generosity Instead of Real Empathy

When people are generous to us, sometimes we are so grateful for the attention or assistance that we do not realise why they might be so helpful and kind. When we ask people how they are doing or if they need help, do we want to hear the real answer?

False generosity is given when it is from a place of power, and typically it is done to make the giver look good. Then, the person who received the help ‘owes’ the giver something, and a narcissist will always come to collect. When we have leaders who operate this way, we lose so much potential because genuine empathy and generosity are missing.

We must remember how to collaborate and work together to achieve the goals we desire as a company or corporation. We must be honest with each other and show empathy and kindness.

People who only focus on themselves may initially seem more successful or more powerful, but in reality, they limit themselves. More brains are better than one, and everyone works better when we think collaboratively. Why are some leaders so stuck on themselves?

Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.

Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha

When Leaders Focus on the Needs of Others

According to scientists, narcissists understand that others do not usually share their inflated opinions of themselves. They also understand that the initial positive impression someone may have about them will generally decay over time.6

When leaders (and humans in general) can see past themselves, they can truly focus on the needs of others. Leadership isn’t about taking care of our own personal needs, no matter what we see in current politics around the globe. Authentic leadership enforces collaboration while extending grace and compassion to others.

Being sure that others have the tools they need to succeed is not really being generous; it’s being a good leader. Recognising that sometimes we need to celebrate even the small things is important, especially when people are working very hard or morale is lower. Tumultuous times often translate into worry and anxiety for employees, so why not take a break and celebrate something that is going well?

Imagine the possibilities if great minds from history had all somehow existed in the same timeline, freely able to exchange ideas. We have this opportunity now, but how many in leadership positions are taking advantage of this? A generous leader knows when to celebrate and cheer others on, even at their own expense. What kind of leader are you?

Learn more by reading our other articles on Generosity!


  1. Nevicka B, Ten Velden FS, De Hoogh AHB, et al. Reality at odds with perceptions: narcissistic leaders and group performance. Psychol Sci 2011; 22: 1259–1264.
  2. Simmons L. How Narcissistic Leaders Destroy from Within. Stanford Graduate School of Business, (accessed 16 January 2023).
  3. O’Reilly CA, Doerr B. Conceit and deceit: Lying, cheating, and stealing among grandiose narcissists. Pers Individ Dif 2020; 154: 109627.
  4. Lee R. The Ties Between Crime and Malignant Narcissism, (2017, accessed 16 January 2023).
  5. Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Nelemans SA, et al. Origins of narcissism in children. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2015; 112: 3659–3662.
  6. Carlson EN, Vazire S, Oltmanns TF. You probably think this paper’s about you: narcissists' perceptions of their personality and reputation. J Pers Soc Psychol 2011; 101: 185–201.

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