The Narcissistic Leader’s Shame

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Meryl Streep’s interpretation of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada reminded people of their experiences with their worst boss. Her ruthless, self-absorbed behavior portrayed how difficult encounters can be with a narcissistic leader. “Prada” became the nickname for a cold, grandiose, and exploitative boss needing to be reminded of her unique, special place. While we are often fascinated by such leaders, what motivates a narcissistic leader?

Narcissism has a storied history. Freud first penned the term based on Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth condemned to fall in love with his reflection in a pool of water. Psychologists expanded the mythic Narcissus and observed behavioral patterns illustrated by Miranda: grandiose and entitled; demanding admiration and control; lacking empathy; and acting superior. Miranda was not distressed by her behavior; only the inability of others to meet her mandates. She made unrealistic, perfectionist demands of her staff and was “disappointed” when they did not satisfy her. Her daring demeanor appears to be founded on great strength. To the contrary, it rests on a fragile foundation of inferiority often formed from fears of failure and exposure. This can lead to overcompensation in order to prove her worth and value.

What might have caused Miranda to overcompensate and cover her fears of inferiority and exposure? In a word, shame. Shame is about an invasive, personal flaw. So what is Miranda’s personal flaw? Narcissistic shame is often an age-old battle fought to cover feeling of being a fraud, unlovable, or pitiful. Miranda emotionally refused to let people know her. Fears of being discovered were just below the surface; the slightest criticism or disenchantment could trigger her humiliating ire. With minimum words or an icy stare she summarily stripped others of their self-respect. Shame’s unique feature is that it is so intolerable that many have developed the ability to not acknowledge it. Miranda, for example, insulated herself by being cold, cruel, conniving, and let down by everyone around her. Her wall of protection, however, demanded a high price, a lonely life. Her coveted trophies of power, beauty, and money replaced intimate relationships with her children, husband, and colleagues.

If Miranda Priestly sold her life to a fantasy, why was she so successful? The fear of shame is a compelling motivator. The drive to manage this dreaded feeling challenges leaders to achieve exceptional results. For example, she had a keen eye for fashion trends and a dominating vision for Runway magazine. She went to great length to use her vision and prestige to shape the industry. Her power attracted others to her “many out of fear” and in the fashion industry “only her opinion counted.” Her ruthless pursuit of results equipped her to deal with all threats “real and imagined”and win.

Michael Maccoby’s classic article the “Narcissistic Leaders” in the Harvard Business Review (January-February, 2000) discusses the pros and cons of this leadership style. He observed such negative characteristics as: sensitivity to criticism, poor listening skills, lack of empathy, distaste for mentoring, and an intense desire to compete. Psychologists would argue that shame underlies each one.

Narcissistic leaders like Miranda are profoundly thinned-skin; over time they renounced the trustworthiness of others. Self-knowledge proved too painful and/or humiliating. Constructive feedback may have been experienced as a loss of control or a painful exposure. To prevent criticism, Miranda’s piercing, critical demeanor made it clear that feedback was to be avoided. There was no such experience of being mildly exposed. Failure to treat her specialâ”give her what she wanted when she wanted itâ”resulted in belittling the offender, behavior consistent with narcissistic shame.

Poor listening is a direct result of being sensitive to criticism. Listening requires attention and recognizing the other. When the fear of shame underlies listening, Miranda was poised to be on guard and either ignore and dismiss or strike. She, like many other leaders, developed an uncanny ability to blithely disregard what was said, as if it had not been heard. Other times she was challenged or hurt and responded with hostility; a preemptive tactic to eradicate the implicit threat and regain control.

Empathy is a critical component in all relationships, but not for the narcissist. A caring need to be involved with others is often replaced with suspicion and cynicism. For the narcissist, pursuing warm, compassionate relationships are not of interests. Miranda’s need for love was replaced by demanding adoration and deference. She seems to have lost the desire to reach out to others; if she made the other person the problem, she could continue to feel okay about herself.

Organizations succeed by being competitive, but the narcissistic leader thrives on it. Competition is more than a good business strategy; it is a solution for dealing with unending threats. The competitive intensity, however, is a paradox. On the one hand, Miranda’s competitive need to win masked the hallmarks of shame: fears of being weak, losing control, or perceived as incompetent. At the same time, the spoils of her conquests held the hope of vindication and relief from her shameful predicament: “There is no one who can do what I do!” she exclaimed. More is at stake than simply winning; Miranda’s legacy itself was bet on her gambit.

Narcissistic shame drives many to be unequaled in their professional abilities: gifted visionaries, determined leaders, and ruthless decision makers. Yet the leader’s prominence is built on a fragile foundation of inferiority and the incapability of trusting others. These behaviors are symptoms of shame. Psychologists who work with such leaders typically find feelings of being fundamentally bad and not worthy of membership in the human community behind these behaviors. Miranda would be the last to know or admit her shame: “Everybody wants this! [privilege]” she exclaimed. “Everybody wants to be like us.”

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