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Leadership and personality disorder: what do we know?

Rima Viliūnienė answers few questions by Ramunė Mazaliauskienė


Some researchers talk about certain personality traits or – sometimes – even about personality disorder. What do you think: can a person having a personality disorder be an effective leader? If yes, what type of disorder, and in what way?

I want to share few ideas from the book “Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice” Chapter 7 A CLINICAL APPROACH TO THE DYNAMICS OF LEADERSHIP AND EXECUTIVE TRANSFORMATION by Manfred Kets de Vries and Elisabet Engellau, as I think it could illustrate the topic. “The study of leadership is difficult because (as one wit said) leadership is like pornography: hard to define, but easy to recognize.

True leaders are merchants of hope, speaking to the collective imagination of their followers, co-opting them to join them in a great adventure. Great leaders inspire people to move beyond personal, egoistic motives to transcend themselves, as it were—and as a result they get the best out of their people.

The essence of leadership is the ability to get people voluntarily to do things that they would not otherwise do.

A solid dose of narcissism is a prerequisite for anyone who hopes to rise to the top of an organization. Narcissism offers leaders a foundation for conviction about the righteousness of their cause. The leader’s conviction that his group, organization has a special mission inspires loyalty and group identification; the strength (and even inflexibility) of the leader’s worldview gives followers something to identify with and hold on to.

The combination of narcissistic disposition and the pressures of a leadership position can have disastrous consequences. The challenge is how to keep sane people sane in insane places.

Constructive narcissists <…> are not searching for personal power alone. Rather, they have a vision of a better organization or society and want to realize that vision with the help of others. They take advice and consult with others, although they are prepared to make the ultimate decisions. As transformational leaders they inspire others not only to be better at what they do, but also to entirely change what they do.

Reactive narcissistic leaders, <…> as a way of mastering their feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, they may develop a sense of entitlement, believing that they deserve special treatment and that rules and regulations apply only to others. They may develop an exaggerated sense of self-importance and self-grandiosity and a concomitant need for admiration.

Many reactive narcissistic leaders become fixated on issues of power, status, prestige, and superiority. To them, life turns into a zerosum game: there are winners and losers. They are preoccupied with looking out for number one. Reactive narcissistic leaders are not prepared to share power. On the contrary, as leaders they surround themselves with yes-men. Unwilling to tolerate disagreement and dealing poorly with criticism, such leaders rarely consult with colleagues, preferring to make all decisions on their own. When they do consult with others, they expecting others to agree to whatever they suggest.

Rima Viliūnienė, MD, PhD
Rima Viliūnienė, MD, PhD. Image by Ina Undaravičienė

What are the personality traits of an effective leader in crisis times? Are good leaders in crisis times differ from effective leaders in peaceful times?

In the wartime they command (lead) us, but in the peaceful times we imprison them. I don't remember who is the author of this idea. Sad, but true.

In a crisis, a leader is needed to take on the role of messiah / savior. After that, when the crisis ends and the next stage of the organization's development begins, there are often challenges in changing the leader-messiah to a different type of leader. Because a narcissistic or psychopathic leader refuses to be replaced. □


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