Narcissim and Authenticity

Cover of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living...

Cover via Amazon

I think I finally understand my profound discomfort with the concept of authenticity in the context of leadership.

This past weekend, I read a book entitled “The Narcissism Epidemic” by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.  Narcissism is a state of excessive self-admiration, not to be confused with a healthy self-esteem.  Typically, narcissists have an over-inflated view of themselves, for example of their attractiveness and abilities.  They lack empathy and quality relationships with others. “This is the main difference between narcissists and someone merely high in self-esteem: The high self-esteem person who’s not a narcissist values relationships, but the narcissist does not.” (p. 19)

Twenge and Campbell noted research suggests that narcissism is not “really high self-esteem” and that narcissists are not merely victims of very low self-esteem. Studies also show that narcissists are not actually better/smarter/better looking than the rest of us.  Finally, narcissism is growing dramatically with a “30% increase in two decades”. Now one in four Americans in their 20s
“answered [the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) answered the majority of questions in the narcissistic direction.” (p. 30)

Narcissism is about self-admiration. The authenticity movement is a natural outcome of narcissism. Authenticity is about expressing one’s true self, so everyonelse will know how awesome you are.  The basic idea is that we will be happier if we can live they way we feel.  The problem with authenticity is that it is all about one’s self, not about those around us. Taken too far, authenticity is merely another way to express one’s self-importance.   In other words, being one’s authentic self becomes more important than the needs of others.

We say we want our leaders to be authentic. But I think we really want them to be sincere.  That is, that they believe in what they say and do. Too much focus on authenticity may be yet another form of narcissism in our celebrity, success obsessed culture.

We are increasingly having difficulty working in teams in an era where teamwork is essential.  The combination of increased narcissism and decreased empathy in our society may be contributing factors to this challenge. Perhaps we all need to start thinking of others, just a little bit more, and ourselves just a little bit less.


8 replies »

  1. The last line of your blog sounds like a quote from the Grinch who stole Christmas. “Perhaps we all need to start thinking of others, just a little bit more, and ourselves just a little bit less.”
    Funny how the same morals we teach children in our stories meant for kids can be applied to real grown up stuff like work and leadership. So maybe work is like being a kid in the sand box? Try being authentic/sincere to make friends and have fun? Us adults (I guess I qualify as that now) sometimes forget the fun part.

    • Andrew, That is so true. My wife teaches special ed and much of her trainings are focused on basic communication. I was really surprised at how her charts she was creating for children apply to leaders too. Just think how many people are impacted this time of year by stories like The Grinch and A Christmas Carol? Are tose struggling with Narcissism able to see it though and change?

  2. This is something marketers and PR professinals are facing more and more as C level employees are encouraged to participate in engagement. What is dangerous though is all that was once behind corporate doors is now out in front of the world. It sure highlights the need for getting your house in order before you embrace the new way of promotion and marketing. I have added “The Narcissism Epidemic” to my bookstack. Thanks.

  3. I like the word you used…sincere. I don’t think that throws authenticity out the window. Nor do I believe that “authenticity is about expressing one’s true self, so everyon else will know how awesome you are.”

    Authenticity is genuinely expressive externally to who you are internally. The challenge is when you ask the question, “To what are you being authentic.”

    Authenticity is a part of leadership, not the sum of leadership. The foundation of quality leadership is self-leadership. This introspective look and bent towards the success of others is what makes authenticity work in leadership.

    Narcissism has no place in leadership, but ditching authenticity along with narcissism is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Great to see this book got you thinking around the importance of authenticity and leadership. Great to hear your perspective!


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