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Narcissism certainly exists among military leaders, but whether or not the military encourages narcissism is worth considering. To be sure, there is an understandable desire among military members to be part of something “special.” Particularly in the vein of Special Forces, Rangers, Seals, PJs, SOAR, Recon, Delta, SAS, SBS, paratroopers, Royal Marines Commandos, fighter pilots, operators, etc. This goal is admirable and the wish to be the best, and surrounded by the best, is a worthy one. It motivates one to set goals, attain a high level of physical fitness, and complete challenging military training courses where the emphasis is on determination, endurance, and physical excellence as well as tactical and technical competence. The members of these units deserve our highest admiration for carrying out missions often involving dangerous tasks in the defense of our countries and (usually) doing so in a highly professional manner.
However, are we in the military putting too much emphasis on individual achievement when promoting our leaders which encourages narcissism? Do these types of individuals necessarily make exceptional leaders due to their specialized skill set? What are the second order effects of these actions? Perhaps the military in general and SOF in particular have a “blind spot” which then exacerbates and perpetuates a narcissistic and toxic culture. This culture then breeds a leader who is lacking in the most important quality — leadership — with dire consequences.
Let us delve into the subject of narcissism a bit further by examining the traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), many of which can be seen among these elite forces and those wishing to be like them:
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people
- Continually demeaning, bullying and belittling others
- Exploiting others to achieve personal gain
- Lack of empathy for the negative impact they have on the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people
- Fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
- Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Need for continual admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Intense envy of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them
Among military leaders, a significant number embody and display narcissistic traits. When narcissism becomes toxic it can lead to the dysfunction of any organization and damages the health of a unit and the overall force. Merriam Webster defines toxic as “extremely harsh, malicious or harmful.” In his groundbreaking 2004 paper titled Toxic Leadership, Colonel (Ret.) George E. Reed discussed toxic leader syndrome (TLS) as having three key elements:
- An apparent lack of concern for the wellbeing of subordinates.
- A personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate.
- A conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest.
What soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine has not seen these traits evidenced in one of their leaders? There is nothing wrong with some small degree of narcissism. Self-confidence and ambition are qualities to be inculcated, particularly in the armed forces. However, when confidence in oneself veers over the line to overt narcissism, it has a negative effect.
“They (the narcissists) rationalize their self-centered behavior and see themselves as exceptional in the sense that rules that apply to others do not apply to them. They become immune to the suffering of others if their own interests are being furthered, and because they believe themselves to be smarter than others, they tend to stop listening or become overly critical. They tend to feel entitled to privileges not afforded to others because they deserve them as a result of the unique and indispensable service they are providing to their organizations.”
Examining the traits of NPD and Colonel Reed’s elements of TLS, it is apparent that many similarities exist. A lack of empathy is common to both. Empathy must be present in any successful human interaction and is one of the U.S. Army’s “Factors internal and central to a leader that constitute an individual’s core.” It is a way leaders openly express that they care for their subordinates. “Empathy is not pity, compassion, or sympathy, but a developed skill that builds trust, improves communication, and fosters relationships within organizations and with others outside.”
Another trait both NPD and TLS have in common is an absence of interpersonal skills. This stems from a lack of emotional intelligence: “Those who are emotionally intelligent are good at reading, understanding, and empathizing with others. Some might equate emotional intelligence to “people skills,” critical in building strong relationships with others.”
Are we evaluating leaders and their leadership abilities correctly? Arguably, we are not. Is a leader measured by how many training courses he or she has successfully completed or how physically tough or strong they are? How fast they run? Some of my personal experiences have only served to reinforce these erroneous tendencies. I had a supervisor who stated, “I’d have no respect for a boss who couldn’t kick my ass.” Another field grade officer equated a leader’s worth by how many pull-ups they could perform. Clearly, toughness and fitness are important, but they alone do not define a leader, even in the military. Subordinates are less likely to care if their leader has the fitness level of a professional athlete; much more important is leadership ability and job competency. I have heard of an officer who received the highest evaluation for earning the maximum score on his fitness test while not knowing the names of any of his soldiers. By prioritizing physical ability over more important qualities for command, we perpetuate a culture which may be eliminating effective leaders.
The U.S. Army’s Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development, lists the leadership skills for officers to demonstrate with a high level of proficiency. The competencies are: army values, empathy, warrior and service ethos, discipline, military and professional bearing, fitness, confidence, resilience, mental agility, sound judgment, innovation, interpersonal tact, expertise, leads others, builds trust, extends influence beyond the chain of command, leads by example, communicates, creates a positive environment/fosters espirit de corps, prepares self, develops leaders, stewards the profession, and gets results. A tall order indeed. It is worth considering how these traits are measured and how they can be made less subjective. Perhaps the leader’s score on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test would be illuminating as a discriminative criteria.
From the plethora of narcissistic and toxic leaders at all levels of command, a thorough review of evaluation methods and criteria is needed. The U.S. Army recently announced that they are changing the way that battalion commanders are selected for command. The prospective officer “will be interviewed by behavioral psychologists and a panel of senior officers, and will write an essay as part of the assessment.” A negative outcome of narcissistic behavior exists when those individuals that have attained special status feel that the normal rules do not apply to them. This is evident by the current crisis in the special operations community. Numerous examples of poor leadership combined with an evident lack of character have combined to bring to light unethical and at times criminal behavior. Perhaps this is a result of a narcissistic culture which engenders disobedience.
It is not difficult to spot narcissistic behavior by leaders at all levels once the traits are exposed. “They are the ones who put themselves before organizational success, while caring little for the men and women they lead. Such people indoctrinate rather than teach, dominate meetings, are convinced of their superior abilities, are sensitive to criticism, want to be understood but lack empathy for others, find it difficult to mentor or be mentored, and are relentless and ruthless competitors.” As Colonel Reed said, “Good leaders understand that leadership is a team sport that requires a “we” and not a “me” mentality. Let us ensure we place the emphasis on development and evaluation of the crucial leadership qualities, rather than on other attributes, when placing someone in a vitally important position of trust and responsibility.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.