Trump and the risks of narcissistic leadership
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In 2013 I published a paper about the risks and problems of the narcissistic leadership of a New York based billionaire businessman. The paper happened to focus on Dick Fuld, but in 2016 it may well have focused on another New York based billionaire businessman, Donald Trump. Lehman Brothers’ Headquarters, where Dick Fuld was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, was after all just a stone’s throw from Trump Tower.
Trump has all the characteristics of a narcissistic leader, and all the warning signs are present: we have good reason to be concerned. One key feature of the narcissistic leader is hubris, an exaggerated sense of one’s own value and worth. Trump emblazons buildings, aeroplanes and golf courses with his own name; regularly speaks about how he has ‘good genes’; and talks of how uniquely talented and clever he is.
Other key characteristics are the narcissists’ over-inflated view of their own power and knowledge, something Trump is often prone to remind us of. Trump talks of how he will re-shape the balance of global power, redressing the way, as he puts it, America has been ‘raped’ by other countries. This suggests that, aside from a large degree of naivety, he has omnipotent delusions about his capacity to exert influence, and an over-inflated view of his ability to understand and shape global politics.
Narcissistic leaders also tend to be contemptuous of others who they see as inferior to them. Trump’s now notorious suggestion that he has the right to sexually assault young women because he is a ‘celebrity’; his shocking mimicry of a disabled reporter on live television; and his branding of Mexicans as rapists and drug-dealers; are some of the ways in which he shows contempt for others, many of whom will be the very citizens he will act as President on behalf of.
An inclination for vengeance is yet another feature of the narcissist, one which also has deeply worrying consequences. Trump’s working up his supporters into a frenzied excitement about Hillary Clinton’s emails, shouting ‘lock her up’; as well as his threats to prosecute any woman who accused him of sexual assault etc., all speak of a deeply ingrained need for revenge.
The delusional nature of Trump’s narcissism and his excessive view of his own power and knowledge are laid bare by the fact that – somewhat ironically – he made his name by presiding over the American television version of ‘The Apprentice’: Trump has served no apprenticeship whatsoever for the post of he is about to assume, with every one of the previous 44 US Presidents having served in senior positions in government or in the military or both, where Trump has held no such position. This speaks of an extraordinary sense of grandiosity, of a failure to learn and develop, leaving Trump to feel that he can assume a position – the most powerful in the world – without any obvious preparation for the post.
Worryingly, while they may manage adequately when times are good, narcissistic leaders tend to deteriorate rapidly when there is a downturn. Indeed, the central argument of my paper is that narcissistic leaders may be ‘incubating’ problems that only become manifest at a later stage because such leaders become persecuted, and often highly vengeful, when the going gets tough. Put differently, the over-confidence of narcissistic leaders is often just a mask that is used to protect them against deep vulnerability; and being vulnerable or ‘thin-skinned’, they tend to react sharply, vengefully and sometimes brutally when times are difficult, and this may only become manifest at some later point in their career.
Given that Trump will be working closely with many Republicans who have made it clear that they have a visceral dislike for him; that he will have to work alongside global leaders who are profoundly dismayed and in deep shock about him and his approach; that he seeks to dismantle the very foundations of post-war US governmental policy, both domestic and international; and that he has no obvious skill or experience to be doing this job; the ‘going’ looks not just ‘tough’ but tumultuous and extraordinarily difficult, and for that reason Trump’s reaction is likely to be highly problematic. Because of these character issues, whatever our political views, we should have deep concerns about a Trump presidency.
About Mark Stein
Professor Mark Stein is Chair in Leadership and Management at the School of Business, University of Leicester. For his papers, he has received an Emerald Citation of Excellence; the Richard Normann Prize; the ‘Group & Organization Management’ best paper prize; and the iLab prize for innovative scholarship.