The Mind of the Narcissist -Leader or not (Heilbrunn)

Does the description below extracted from “Malignant Self Love : Narcissism Revisited” by Sam Vaknin sound like the kind of person you want to lead your business? Your project? Your negotiation team? Your specialist technical department? Your finance team? Your public sector body? Your NGO? Charity? School? University? Sports club? Cultural body? Religious organisation? Armed Forces? Government and Nation? 

Yet time and time again throughout the centuries many such people would appear to have charmed, deceived and intimidated their way into such roles and many, many more for which they were psychologically and emotionally ill equipped,being moody and temperamental, seeking self praise but failing to encourage others when most warranted, instead seeming to derive pleasure from not only criticising but even humiliating others, yet apparently incapable of coping with an iota of criticism themselves and blaming anyone and everyone else for their own failings, leading to a “blame culture” sometimes throughout the entire organisation

Even if they managed to mask their inadequacies much of the time, and intimidate those who identified them for who they were into silence or submission, eventually it can become apparent that they were not who they seemed to be, lacked the talent and emotional intelligence to inspire the organisation forward in the right direction in a cooperative, unified and generally harmonious, constructive and visionary manner, especially when only their ideas counted and their more visionary coworkers did not feel safe or secure to be at their most creative and air their suggestions, given that their leader held long-term grudges against those who dared voice different opinions to his or her own. 

Even more concerning perhaps is when they are NOT identified for who they actually were, with their consistent intimidatory traits, maltreatment of coworkers, disdain and contempt for others within and outside the entity, extraordinary self-belief and conceited arrogance somehow far too frequently becoming associated with “strong leadership”.

When these and many similar behaviours become applauded and such a part of “the way we do things” that others come to believe that if they want to progress through the organisation they also need to engage in rudeness, crudeness, contempt and cruelty, there clearly is something wrong.

When a “5C Culture” or “Counterproductively Competitive and Combative Corporate Culture” becomes the norm along with disagreement, disharmony and disloyalty, with harmony, cooperation, collaboration, compassion, concern and kindness between coworkers frowned upon, there clearly is something wrong.

But how many consider that such environments may not only be counterproductive, with people performing well below their best and a “management team” not functioning as it should, could be the result of the dysfunctional and delusional mindset of a disturbed and disordered leader, whose bizarre behaviour includes seeming to be unhappy experiencing others happiness and having an insatiable need to disturb this, being essentially happy making others unhappy, may not be “strong” leaders at all, but actually quite weak, insecure and emotionally deficient, not full of self-confidence but self-doubt, needing to make others feel bad so they can feel good?

Does this sound like the right kind of person to manage a corner shop let alone multinational corporation, financial institution, government or nation? Yet they do, with inevitable consequences,

Even after their entity has failed, with many lives adversely affected, these ruth-less people (meaning empathy, compassion and sympathy free) still cannot see that they did anything wrong.

Those lacking a sense of wrong must have something wrong with them, as must those far more interested in themselves than those they are trusted to responsible lead. 

All the apparent intelligence in the world may be of little real value, if none of it is emotional, because at the end of the day most people like being liked, appreciated, praised and encouraged and don’t respond well to being disrespected, disliked, discouraged and humiliated.

The most astute and emotionally intelligent “Constructive Leaders” well appreciate that there is no humility in humiliation nor humiliation in humility.

So why do we continue to choose or allow so many “Disordered Leaders” who thrive on practicing “Destructive Leadership” to mis-lead so many of the entities throughout perhaps every sector of global society?

Could it be because too many decision-makers outside the psychological profession are unaware what constitutes a “Personalty Disorder” and what the tell-tale signs might actually be?

One of the most critical matters to appreciate is that as such people see things differently and behave quite differently from most others in society, they must be recognised by others as being different and hence dealt with substantially differently.
Until this becomes better understood, they will continue to be misunderstood, and chosen for roles they are incapable of performing in the manner expected.

A starting point in eradicating the seditiously self-centred influence on society of people with potentially disordered personalities needs to be no longer associating charm with leadership potential and dictatorial traits with leadership ability, rather seeing through their “mask of normality” of surface level appeal in a quest for greater depths of genuine empathy and an authentic interest in both other people and indeed society itself.

Perhaps throughout history, society would appear to have mistaken charm, arrogance and even callous ruthlessness for “managerial ability” because we appointing highly self-centred people to leadership positions, consistently mistaking outwardly dynamic displays of confidence and talk of integrity for strength of character and intimidatory traits for strength of leadership, when in reality such fundamentally weak and perhaps childlike people may possess neither.

Talking the talk is no substitute for actually being capable of walking the walk. Indeed in their case there may be a deep disconnect between their talk and their deeds. Such appointments are likely to result in integrity challenges, as the interests of other people let alone wider society and matters of ethics and morality are not on the personal radar of people secretly or more overtly obsessed with themselves.

Their greatest talent can be their ability to frequently hide their total lack of consideration for the interests and needs of others and their necessity to dominate, control and damage them emotionally.

Too many in society appear unaware what day-to day behavioural traits self-centred leaders display, particularly those who may be capable of being diagnosed with any of a range of Personality Disorders, notably Cluster B including Narcissistic.

Those with “a chronic, inflexible, maladaptive pattern of perceiving, thinking and behaving that seriously impairs an individual’s ability to function in social or other settings” should be disqualified from becoming leaders of other people and societal organisations.

Recognising relevant behavioural traits could assist diminish the negative impact such challenging people can have on the lives of others, within and outside global organisations, especially when they innately prefer competition and conflict to teamwork and co-operation.

Despite the problems such people create throughout society from impaired relationships and damaged reputations to business failures, chaos and even wars, perhaps throughout history being troublemakers not peacemakers, the concept of personality disorders needs to become more widely appreciated to better understand “difficult” people and their initially bizarre, but in due course entirely predictable behaviour, to sufficiently realise that their motivations differ from those of most “normal” people.

One of the first steps is to identify these abnormal people, by way of their own behaviour, as being different from the norm, then adapting to respond to their sometimes extraordinary actions and reactions, given their inflexibility and probable inability to alter these themselves, hence learning how to behave differently towards them (“denying narcissistic supply”), with a view to minimising the damage and perhaps havoc they will inevitably create, especially when they lead our organisations and even nations.

Until intimidatory traits, erroneously believed to be necessary rather than inappropriate implements in the toolkit of respected leaders, become associated with disordered management, a situation which may have blighted society for generations, this (avoidable) scenario may be perpetuated to the detriment of interpersonal trust and the reputation of the entities who appointed them before they may subsequently be given sufficient reason to doubt their own sanity for doing so.

The innate priority of such disordered people can be simply described as “getting their own way, irrespective of the cost to other people or their organisation.”

To them, lacking concern for anything, but themselves, such matters are inconsequential and mere collateral damage en route to satisfying their insatiable personal goals. Even after their organisation has collapsed with many people’s lives adversely affected, these emotionally labile individuals, because that is what they are, not team-players, can still wonder what they did wrong.

Appreciating that their mind may in fact be disordered could be an important first step on the road to progress which otherwise may be a frustratingly fruitless exercise. Any attempts at trying to deal with them “normally” may well be doomed to failure.

While many people can behave in a selfish, difficult, proud and contrary manner occasionally, especially under extreme pressure, to be classified as a personality disorder the traits need to be “inflexible”, meaning can be repeatedly observed without regards to time, place or circumstance, while also interfering with a person’s ability to function well in society, including causing problems with interpersonal relationships, termed “functional impairment”.

A group intimidated into only doing what the dominant and perhaps narcissistic leader wants is unlikely to evolve, especially when “getting their own way” is very important to their leader.

If people are afraid to “speak up” and uninspired to suggest a variety of alternative ideas or courses of action, how likely is more visionary progress?

At the end of the day disordered leaders demotivate and discourage people from producing their best. They may even want to bring out the worst in others as they try to turn people against each other rather than engender co-operation and teamwork.

While many people “succeed” by developing people and building trusting relationships, others seem to thrive at damaging relationships and destroying trust, both perhaps inconsequential to them with their primary focus being innately on themselves.

Flourishing levels of self-respect are important for everyone to function well in life and society, but what might be the difference between healthy and unhealthy levels? Could it be how they like to make other people feel? Confident, respected, assured, secure, satisfied, encouraged and inspired to produce their best, or tentative, lacking in confidence, disrespected, insecure, dissatisfied, discouraged, perhaps even belittled, nervous, hesitant and doubting their own ability, if not sanity.

Narcissists pervade society and often prevail in business where the rewards for their self-centred, often devious and sometimes intimidatory and ruthless behaviour, featuring a callous disregard for the opinions, interests and feelings of others and the impact of their decisions and actions on other people, are potentially far greater than in any other walk of life.

They demand respect but deny it to others, require and seek praise but dislike being encouraging, are constantly critical but overreact to anything they perceive to be criticism.

They damage trust when they seek to assassinate the character of those they believe to be opponents, often quite falsely. They want others to do what they want yet may themselves be incapable of learning from their prior experiences. Their necessity to control can become uncontrollable.

Remedial action will inevitably be required arising from Destructive Leadership before it is too late and the damage they inflict becomes irreparable, evidenced by the names of now defunct corporations in global business graveyards as well as other organisations and even nations which also no longer exist.

Yet we continue to elect challenging people to senior roles because we erroneously mistake charm, arrogance, vindictiveness, humiliation and other ruthless traits for “leadership ability”, rather than a fundamental character flaw.

As far as leadership is concerned, all the intelligence in the world may be of no real value if little or none of it is emotional.

Prevention is infinitely better than the improbability of cure.

Extract from Malignant Self Love : Narcissism Revisited

by Prof Sam Vaknin PhD

Narcissus Publications Imprint Prague & Skopje 2007 ISBN: 9989-929-06-8


FOREWARD by Ken Heilbrunn, M.D.

Hello. Recognise me? No? Well, you see me all the time. You read my books, watch me on the big screen, feast on my art, cheer at my games, use my inventions, vote me into office, follow me into battle, take notes at my lectures, laugh at my jokes, marvel at my successes, admire my appearance, listen to my stories, discuss my politics, enjoy my music, excuse my faults, envy me my blessings. No? Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well, you have seen me. Of that I am positive. In fact, if there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that. You have seen me.

Perhaps our paths crossed more privately. Perhaps I am the one who came along and built you up when you were down, employed you when you needed a job, showed the way when you were lost, offered confidence when you were doubting, made you laugh when you were blue, sparked your interest when you were bored, listened to you and understood, saw you for what you really are, felt your pain and found the answers, made you want to be alive. Of course you recognise me. I am your inspiration, your role model, your saviour, your leader, your best friend, the one you aspire to emulate, the one whose favour makes you glow.

But I can also be your worst nightmare. First I build you up because that’s what you need. Your skies are blue. Then, out of the blue, I start tearing you down. You let me do it because that’s what you are used to. You are dumfounded. But I was wrong to take pity on you. You really are incompetent, disrespectful, untrustworthy, immoral, ignorant, inept, egotistical, constrained, disgusting. You are a social embarrassment, an unappreciative partner, an inadequate parent, a disappointment, a sexual flop, a financial liability. I tell you this to your face. I must. It is my right, because it is. I behave, at home and away, in any way I want to, with total disregard for conventions, mores, or the feelings of others. It is my right, because it is.

I lie to your face, without a twitch or a twitter, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. In fact, my lies are not lies at all. They are the truth, my truth. And you believe them, because you do, because they do not sound or feel like lies, because to do otherwise would make you question your own sanity, which you have a tendency to do anyway, because from the very beginning of our relationship you placed your trust and hopes in me, derived your energy, direction, stability, and confidence from me and from your association with me. So what’s the problem if the safe haven I provide comes with a price? Surely I am worth it and then some.

Run to our friends. Go. See what that will get you. Ridicule. People believe what they see and what they see is the same wonderful me that you also saw and still do. What they also see is the very mixed up person that you have obviously become. The more you plead for understanding, the more convinced they are that the crazy one is you, the more isolated you feel, and the harder you try to make things right again, not by changing me but by accepting my criticisms and by striving to improve yourself.

Could it be that you were wrong about me in the beginning? So wrong as that? How do you think our friends will react if you insist that they are also wrong about me? After all, they know that it really is you who have thwarted my progress, tainted my reputation, and thrown me off course.

I disappoint you? Outrageous! It is you who have disappointed me. Look at all he frustrations you cause me. Lucky for you, I have an escape from all this, and fortunately my reputation provides enough insulation from the outside world so I can indulge in this escape with impunity. What escape? Why, those eruptions of rage you dread and fear. Ah, it feels so good to rage. It is the expression of and the confirmation of my power over you, my absolute superiority.

Go ahead. Tell our friends about it. See if they can imagine what it’s like, let alone believe it. The more outrageous the things you say about me, the more convinced they are that it is you who have taken a turn for the worse. And don’t expect much more from your therapist either. You may tell him this or that, but what he sees when I visit him is something quite different. So what’s the therapist to believe? After all, it was you who came for help. No! That’s what this is all about. No! That simple two-letter word that, regardless of how bad I am, you simply cannot say. Who knows? You might even acquire some of my behaviour yourself.

But you know what? This may come as a shock, but I can also be my own worst nightmare. I can and I am. You see, at heart my life is nothing more than illusion-clad confusion. I have no idea why I do what I do, nor do I care to find out. In fact, the mere notion of asking the question is so repulsive to me that I employ all of my resources to repel it. I reconstruct facts, fabricate illusions, act them out, and thus create my own reality. It is a precarious state of existence indeed, so I am careful to include enough demonstrable truth in my illusions to ensure their credibility. And I am forever testing that credibility on you and on the reactions of others.

Fortunately my real attributes and accomplishments are in sufficient abundance to fuel my illusions seemingly forever. And modern society, blessed/cursed modern society, values most what I do best and thus serves as my accomplice. Even I get lost in my own illusions, swept away by my own magic.

So, not to worry if you still do not recognise me. I don’t recognise me either. In fact, I am not really sure who I am. That’s probably a question you never ask of yourself. Yet I wonder about it all the time. Perhaps I am not too different from everyone else, just better. After all, that’s the feedback I get. My admirers certainly wish they were me. They just don’t have the gifts I have, nor the courage I have to express them. That’s what the universe is telling me.

Then again, the universe or my universe? As long as the magic of my illusions works on me too, there really is no need for distinction. All I need is an abundant fan club to stay on top of it all. So I am constantly taking fan club inventory, testing the loyalty of present members with challenges of abuse, writing off defectors with total indifference, and scouting the landscape for new recruits.

Do you see my dilemma? I use people who are dependent on me to keep my illusions alive. So really it is I who am dependent on them. I need them to tell me that I don’t need them. Sound crazy? It is. And at times it throws me into a rage. But even the rage, that orgasmic release of pain and anger, works better with an audience.

On some level I am aware of my illusions, but to admit that would spoil the magic. And that I couldn’t bear. So I proclaim that what I do is of no consequence and no different from what others do, and thus I create an illusion about my creating illusions. So, no, I don’t recognise me any better than you do. I wouldn’t dare.

But I am different and we both know it, although neither one of us dares to admit it. Therein lies the root of my hostility. I tear you down because in reality I am envious of you because I am different. At some haunting level, I see my magic for what it is and realise that people around me function just fine without any “magic”. This terrifies me. Panic stricken, I try all my old tricks: displays of my talents, unnecessary deceptions, self-serving distortions, skilful seductions, ludicrous projections, frightening rages, whatever. Normally, that works. But if it fails, watch out. Like a solar-powered battery in darkness, my fire goes out and I cease to exist. Destruction sets in.

That is the key to understanding me. Most people strive for goals and feel good when they approach them. They move toward something positive. If they get there, or even close, receive recognition, enjoy the moment, and show their enjoyment, it is the genuine celebration of genuine self-worth. Even though it may invoke envy or criticism of self-aggrandisement, it is still a real expression of what they really appreciate in who they are and what they do. It is, in a word, real.

Not so for me. I move in the same direction but my movement is not toward something positive but away from something negative, something unreal. That’s why I never stop, am never content, no matter what I achieve. I never get “there” because there is no “there” for me to get. That negative thing seems to follow me around like a shadow. I dowse myself in the light of praise and the light fades, but that’s all it does. Like a moth, I renew the chase, again and again, and each time I succumb to it, again and again.

Can you tell the difference between the real thing and me, between people who genuinely enjoy celebrating themselves and someone like me who merely pretends to? Usually not. The difference, you see, is not in the behaviour you observe. It’s in the motivation. Sure, I look like them and they look like me. But we are not the same. Not at all.

If by chance you are witness to one of my inexplicable Jeckyll-and-Hyde personality changes, you might suspect that something is amiss. But you quickly pass it off as an exception to the rule, for I am quick to revert to “normal”.

Where did it come from, this negativity? Probably from before I learned to talk. When you were exploring your world for the first time, with the usual little toddler mishaps, your mother kept a careful eye on you, intervened when she saw you heading for danger, and comforted you when you made a mistake, even if you cried. Well, that’s not how it was for me. My mother’s expectations of me were much higher. Mistakes were mistakes and crying was not the way to get her approval. That required being perfect, so that’s exactly what I become. Not the little awkward toddler that I was, but my mother’s model child. Not the brave and curious little person that I really was, but the fearful personification of my mother’s ideal.

What you were experiencing through your little mishaps and mistakes were small doses of shame. What you were learning from your quick recoveries was shame repair. At first your mother did most of the repairing. Through repetition, you gradually learned how to do it by yourself. Shame repair brain circuitry was being laid down that would carry you for the rest of your life. I had no such luck. I simply did not acquire that skill when nature had intended my brain to acquire it.

Instead I acquired something else: a sense of needlessness. That’s right, needlessness. Since Mother wouldn’t help me where I needed it most, I learned to pretend that I did not need her. I became tough, self-assured, a know-it-all, a do-it-all, an achiever, a leader. And you know what? It worked. By pretending not to need Mother, I got what I needed from her, her love. Well, at least a semblance of love, in the form of approval and encouragement.

Naturally, I tried this out on the rest of the world, and it worked again. All I needed to do was show others that I did not need them. How? By pretending, of course. Pretending that I knew more and could do more than they did, that I was above the rules of accepted behaviour, that I was special, that I, like Peter Pan, could do and get away with anything I wanted to.

And they played along, perfectly, with all the affirmations needed to sustain the show. It didn’t work on everybody, of course. It was usually the neediest who were drawn to my needlessness, so I became an expert at sniffing them out within seconds. An illusion? Sure. But by then that’s what I had become. Exploitation? Right again. But they were exploiting me too. I gave them what they needed and they followed behind me like obedient sheep. Just as you do to this day! Little did they know that I needed them every bit as much as they needed me. But there was no way I could ever admit that.

For most people, to need others is normal, an accepted part of who they are, of being human. For me, to need anything is to accept that my needlessness is all a sham. If that dissolves, there is nothing left. At least that’s what I fear. The sense of needlessness is my addiction. Am I ashamed of that? Yes, I am. But even greater is my fear of the shame I might experience in facing life without it. No one enjoys shame. But most people can deal with it. Not me. I fear it the way you fear snakes. You will go to great lengths to avoid stepping on a snake. I go to great lengths to avoid stepping on shame.

How many others like me are there? More than you might think, and our numbers are increasing. Take twenty people off the street and you might well find one whose mind ticks so much like mine that you could consider us clones. Impossible, you say. It is simply not possible for that many people – highly accomplished, respected, and visible people – to be out there replacing reality with illusions, each in the same way and for reasons they know not why. It is simply not possible for so many shame-phobic robots of havoc and chaos, all fitting the same description, to function daily midst other educated, intelligent, and experienced individuals, and pass for normal.

It is simply not possible for such an aberration of human cognition and behaviour to infiltrate and infect the population in such numbers and such similarity, virtually undetected by the radar of mental health professionals. It is simply not possible for so much similar visible positive to contain so much concealed similar negative. It is simply not possible.

But it is. That is the enlightenment of Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin. Sam is himself one such clone. What distinguishes him is his uncharacteristic courage to confront, and his uncanny understanding of, that which makes us tick, himself included. Not only does Sam dare ask and then answer the question we clones avoid like the plague, he does so with relentless, laser-like precision.

Read his book. Take your seat at the double-headed microscope and let Sam guide you through the dissection. Like a brain surgeon operating on himself, Sam explores and exposes the alien among us, hoping beyond hope for a resectable tumour but finding instead each and every cell teeming with the same resistant virus. The operation is long and tedious, and at times frightening and hard to believe. Read on. The parts exposed are as they are, despite what may seem hyperbolic or farfetched. Their validity might not hit home until later, when coupled with memories of past events and experiences.

I am, as I said, my own worst nightmare. True, the world is replete with my contributions, and I am lots of fun to be around. And true, most contributions like mine are not the result of troubled souls. But many more than you might want to believe are. And if by chance you get caught in my web, I can make your life a living hell. But remember this. I am in that web too. The difference between you and me is that you can get out.

Ken Heilbrunn, M.D.

Extracted from

Malignant Self Love : Narcissism Revisited

by Prof Sam Vaknin PhD

Narcissus Publications Imprint Prague & Skopje 2007 ISBN: 9989-929-06-8