COVID-19 crisis: should you oust your narcissistic CEO now?

Nick Cohen’s piece three years ago in The Observer (Jan 5, 2017) was mainly about Mr Trump but, to my mind, it was also one of the best general essays on leadership I have read and remains highly relevant.

A flavour of the piece:

“No one in the West has seen Trump’s kind of triumph…But look around your workplace…little Hitlers…They exhibit all the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder…less likely to engage in the hard work of innovating…”

Nick Cohen The Observer (Jan 5, 2017)

His premise was that “compulsive liars can create compulsive believers”. Their peers “believe the stories,” these leaders tell about themselves.

“People are on a continuum — there’s a range of narcissism,” W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, explained in a HuffPost piece. “Most people are sort of in the middle, though some are more extreme than others.”

Zlatan Krizan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University in the same HuffPost article says” “If you do something to [the narcissist] that he doesn’t like, it means you’re against him, or you don’t understand him”.

But what do you do if your current CEO is an extreme narcissist and is the worst type of leader in a crisis?

I propose three steps:

Step 1: Frame any challenge to your CEO in the context of a wider purpose: “Do you still agree that our organisational purpose is x and our strategy for achieving it is y and our plan for implementing that strategy is z as already agreed by the Board?”

They can’t refute this, unless they are proposing a change and in which case that change must be approved by the board or if they are bloody minded they will obfuscate and in which case they’ve got to go, or you’ve got to go, especially in a crisis.

Step 2: “So, do you agree that our behaviour, in broad terms, to implement x, y & z should reduce risks and maximise the opportunity of achieving that outcome?”

If you keep your description of the desired behaviour unthreatening in tone, they are likely to agree, and if they don’t, then you can legitimately challenge their logic.

Step 3: This is the tricky step: “Since you agree to the behaviour we need to achieve our goals can you see why those of us, including you, who behave contrary to that agreed target operating model need to amend that behaviour?” The use of the term target operating model may help as it’s a well known model which encompasses behaviour but you feel its use will irritate your CEO, don’t use it.


I acknowledge that these steps are like walking on eggshells but many people I meet working with extremely narcissistic CEOs spend most of their time doing precisely that already that so why not walk on egg shells with a better purpose?

But I agree, it’s no way to live.

Nick Cohen believes that the solution to dealing with narcissistic people is to work hard on converting the people who support them. Once they are starved of that attention only the seriously ill will resist.

And in that instance, you have a choice to quit and find someone less damaged with whom you can work and find fulfilment or, in a crisis, you may need to oust your CEO before they bring everything down.

But what if your are “the CEO” in a crisis and you are as, Dr. Campbell believes, “somewhere in the middle” of the narcissistic scale like the rest of us and not at the extreme end then you should confront this behaviour in yourself first, then help your top team do the same and then agree a new shared purpose, strategy and behaviour plan.

Do it today or you may find that you are ousted, unfairly.

Ciarán Fenton

For more information on my programmes for CEOs please email me at cfenton@ciaranfenton.com

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