Narcissism and Leadership

People who spend most parenting time with the children are by definition their primary carers and it is assumed that for most it is their parents. Even between the parents it is fair to say that the mother plays a more significant role as the primary carer and bestows considerable attention to the infant. Others in the caring constellation could be the father, grandparents or even a relative. What is the impact of the primary carer upon the child, how the child’s sense of self is formed and what is precisely the implication of this primary care on the formation of an adult self is what this blog attempts to explicate. Please bear with the article’s psychotherapy orientation.


Understanding the self is of profound significance to psychotherapists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, neurologists, behavioural analysts and many others. Attachment theory, object relationship theory and myriad propositions encircle child development research that provides impetus to research the self but of particular interest in this blog is the narcissistic frame of reference and its manifestation in childhood as well as adult stages that highlights ‘a’ particular aspect about the self.


Who are narcissists? Narcissists are people who are excessively in love with their own image. The have unreasonable demands of entitlement, nurse grandiose fantasies and behave as if they are the center of the universe. They are incorrigibly boastful; deny their weakness, brag about their accomplishments, and overtly pretentious. Narcissists basically lack empathy for others as well as to themselves and are excessively self-referential. They are not in touch with their true self and remain focused on their image. Primary narcissism (healthy self-love) however is a basic requisite to engender a well-integrated formation of the self. Sigmund Freud has suggested that primary narcissism remains with us throughout life and this is seconded by Heinz Kohut with his view that “All of us are born with narcissism and gradually our infantile narcissism matures into a healthy adult narcissism depending upon the availability of a nurturing environment.” What lies beneath the encrusted layers of primary and secondary narcissism is what is elaborated as a construct in this blog.



To know about narcissism, let us understand the genesis of childhood.   An infant initially has neither a sense of self nor the awareness about the existence of another person. Melanie Klein has indicated that infants don’t have a sense of self or ego as it is not yet fully organized however from the very beginning of life there is a pull towards integration. Klein further proposes that the early ego lacks cohesiveness, the infant is in a state of total dependence and that in this state the infant has no means of knowing about the maternal care hence cannot gain control over what is well and what is badly done but is only in a position to gain profit or to suffer disturbance. When the infant cries the mother appears in front of her, when she is hungry the mother feeds her, when she is bored mother entertains her with facial gestures, toys, holding her, kissing her, hugging her and so forth, basically the mother is omnipresent for the infant. The mother construes the baby’s cry as a distress call as per her understanding and perception of the situation. As Ambrose Bierce puts it: “A sweater is a garment worn by the child when its mother is feeling chilly”. Implicit in this view is the basic assumption that the baby’s survival depends on its mother’s instincts and responsiveness.

In our build up to understand narcissism let us understand the terms:

  • Self-Objects,
  • Optimal Frustration
  • Ego Libido & Object Libido


Kohut has suggested that self-objects are objects, which we experience as part of our self, and that self-object is an external object but the child doesn’t perceive it as independent of the self. As the baby grows it begins to gradually form an indivisibility between self and the self-object. The infant assumes that the mother is a part of themselves, interlocked as a self-object and that mother is only there to satisfy the infant’s wants and needs.

Let us understand self-object outside the confines of a clinical explanation to bring a little more practicality and applicability in our lives. Self-object is not just the prerogative of the baby. As grown up adults we too have self-objects. Self-objects could be people, objects or activities that complete the self. It may not really complete the self but a perception that it does, exist. Look at how people identify themselves with Arsenal, Chelsea or Barcelona. The football club becomes their self-object to such a level of immersion that they are prepared to violently fight their opponents over trivial matters. One could make nation as a self-object; ‘I’m British, I’m French, I’m American’ etc. People identify with coffee; ‘I need my morning cup of cappuccino, that’s me’. Look at the statements people make about their own personality; I am analytical, I am a democrat, I am a self-made man, I am intuitive, I am an extrovert, I need my 8 hours of sleep; that’s me and so forth. What about Descartes “I think therefore I am”! (Of course Descartes meant it in a more expansive sense). All these attitudes which people have bear-hugged, kind of self-object, have become such an inalienable part of themselves that they live their life assuming this to be the objective truth.

How can we be our morning cup of tea or Saturday evening ‘2 pegs of whiskey’, we are much more than that hence this kind of adamantine identification with our self-object must cease. How can we be an engineer or a doctor or a Vice President, these are merely education & titular embellishments but people when they introduce define themselves by their self object association and this is a restrictive world view which arrests their intrinsic freedom. Such titles will bind them to behave in a certain way. Every organization has this idiosyncrasy of unconsciously categorizing their personnel either by education or year of passing out or batch of MBA or in defense forces identification by seniority, year of joining and so on and a firm who think like this attach immense meaning to it. The dialogue that ensues between two employees (say who don’t know each other) in such organizations is initially reductionist to ascertain at what position and architecture of brilliance a person’s education and seniority lineage is from. A decade back people used to define themselves by religion; we are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists etc. Now we have Harley Davidson Hog membership groups, Eurostar club, BA frequent flyers, Core club New York and so on. Nothing intrinsically right or wrong here but it is interesting to note the passionate attachment to a group, kind of self-object to remain either exclusive or elitist.

Let us understand self-objects in more depth. Kohut & Wolf suggests existence of two kinds of self-objects:

1. Mirroring self-object:

Those who respond to and confirm the child’s innate sense of vigour, greatness and perfection. A child needs the assurance of being perceived by the parents as the center of the universe bereft of which the child lives in a state of fear and anxiety. A very nice analogy that coalesces into an accurate explanation of the mirroring self-object is provided here by Siegel.   “A 2-year boy attempted to stand upright on the palm of his father’s outstretched hand. The little boy climbed onto the outstretched palm and after a short struggle to find his balance, stood straight and tall. The father proudly proclaimed, “Champion of the World” and the boy thrust his arms triumphantly above his head, beaming from ear to ear. At the right moment the boy turned and jumped into his father’s arms as they embraced in a cuddle of delight”. As per Siegel, the father here mirrored and supported his son’s exhibitionistic narcissism, furthered and calmly accepted his son’s infantile grandiosity thereby creating a safe playground in which the boy’s primary narcissism could exist unimpeded by shame, guilt, embarrassment, or overstimulation. If this grandiosity is not supported by the carer during childhood, the child will grow up diffident and with less confidence in his/her capabilities.

2. Idealized parent imago:

Those people to whom the child can look up and with whom he/she can merge as an image of calmness, infallibility and omnipotence. The child as it grows has a need for idealizing a role model with which it can merge and latches on to this role model (say father) and through this idealized parent imago the child attains an understanding of its nuclear self, becomes assertive, becomes ambitious to succeed and integrate with the world.



What happens if the parents just overindulge the child and the child’s grandiosity continues unabated? A study by Cohen suggested that the child gets a feeling that it has superior traits in various areas and feels an exaggerated sense of self-worth in his mental prowess, his knowledge, his cunning, skills, achievements, and so forth. Excessive mirroring or over-indulgence in the child and incessant praising spoils the child. Kohut defined optimal frustration as the period of delay a child experiences before a particular wish can be satisfied. Through the delay the child comes to realize that active steps must be taken in order to satisfy the wish. As per Kohut and Seitz “If the child is over-spoiled (not optimally frustrated), it retains an unusual amount of narcissism and at the same time, because it lacks actual skills, feels inferior. Hence it is important for the parent to introduce optimal frustration to the child to regulate its grandiosity. As Kohut has stated “The exhibitionism of the child must gradually become subordinated to his goal directed activities, a task which is achieved best through gradual frustrations accompanied by loving support.” How do the primary carers introduce optimal frustration in a child? By not always giving in to the child’s demands, whims, fancies and wants, by teaching proper etiquettes, values, invoking a sharing behaviour in the child towards other children, being assertive with the child and so forth.



Let us hark back to ‘child’s genesis’ construct. Initially the child perceives itself and its mother (or other i.e. the primary carer) as one entity but eventually recognizes mother as an entity outside itself but still thinks that the mother is only there for satisfying its needs. This expectancy of the child that mother will always be there is termed by Kohut as ‘Infantile Omnipotence’. As the infant grows and combined with its perception that mother is an entity outside of itself but still meant for satisfying its needs, the baby now starts considering mother as a self-object. As the child grows further and depending upon the care given, the child could perceive the parent as either a mirroring self-object or an idealized parent imago (explained above). The child’s libido (drive) is now invested in the self-object i.e. the primary carer and Freud calls this ‘Object-libido’. This organizing principle in the child augments the child with a sense of equilibrium, stability and a strategy for self-preservation. Kohut and Wolf suggests that the quality of interactions between the self and self-objects in childhood will determine healthy structure of the self of the child and a strong self allows tolerance of any wide swings of self-esteem invoked by victory or defeat, success or failure as well as other emotions such as triumph, joy; despair, rage etc. Faulty interaction between the child and his/her self-objects result in a damaged self.

Now if the mother (who is the mirroring self-object for the child) is not available or doesn’t adequately mirror the child’s need for affection, nurturing and recognition, the child’s libido is retracted from the self-object (mother) and instead invested in the ego (ego-libido) i.e. own ego and the rudiments of narcissism is planted. As stated by Freud ‘The libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be called narcissism”. It is this turning away from the outer object and making the self the object of gratification that is described as Narcissism.

Freud’s analogy of love provides absolute clarity on object-libido. “The highest phase of development of which the object-libido is capable, is seen in the state of being in love, when two lovers seem to give up their own ego centered personality in favour of an object investment (the other). This implies that when both subject and object (2 lovers) invest their libido (drive) in the other (considered as objects by respective subjects), and when they become empathetic and attuned to each other’s needs, love blossoms. They are fully coordinated and resonate synchronously. In contrast, in the state of narcissism, since the libido is withdrawn from the object (the other) and invested to one’s own ego, one gets occupied with loving oneself or one’s image and one is not kind to the needs of the other (object) hence there is bickering, quibble, fights and unrest as both lovers are busy in gratifying their own needs first.



The society and culture of winning is the biggest contributor and so is a rapacious pursuit of aspirational products/lifestyle. Look at the huge emphasis on corporate performance, quarter on quarter earnings, profitability, branding, image embellishment, competitive sports, political ambition and hordes of others. CEO’s get fired in the US if they have 3 back-to-back bad quarters hence to get best results he/she becomes aggressive, moves people around, optimizes resources, and this kind of behaviour cascades down the hierarchy creating people who are less empathetic not just to others but to themselves due to the emphasis of winning. Again the purpose of this write-up is not an insinuation to stop such hire-fire methods after all performance orientation is important for sustenance of the organisation but the idea is to be aware of the ‘win at all costs’ approach. It is the model of embrace that is a leadership challenge.  Enron and Lehman cases are examples of corporate avarice and people hiding behind the image of invincibility till it burst.

In 2012, the American presidential campaign broke the $ 2 billion mark. During this campaign, communicating the image of the next potential president assumed predominance. Scour the web for image consultants and you will hit upon 100’s of websites, click cosmetic surgery and similar statistics unfold. Porche CEO is credited with the statement: When I see two Porches on the same street, I begin to worry. Porche, an aspirational product, survives on exclusivity, which invokes desire. Ferrari deliberately manufactures fewer than 6000 cars a year. Exclusivity is novelty. Aston Martin’s, Rolex’s, Louis Vuitton’s, Cartier’s of the world create this aspiration in people which unconsciously trigger a blind pursuit to acquire these products which in turn also sparks off narcissism. My proposition is not against luxury consumerism but in its acquisition one must not forfeit one’s values, empathy and consideration of others. A desire for super luxury borders on hedonism and cultivates narcissism. Our society fosters this culture of narcissism and it starts from childhood, when a small baby, who till the age of 3, lived life with amazement, curiosity and flourish and thereafter traumatically perceives that he/she has to score well in exams for an elite school admission, has to do more than a one trick pony to receive parents love, validation & complements to nourish its grandiosity. Unconditional love has to be provided to the child regardless of its accomplishments as love during formative years is like emotional oxygen for the child and aids its self-construct.


From infancy till the formation of a true nuclear self the importance of mirroring, validation, recognition, empathy, nurturing etc. will play a fundamental role in the formation of a healthy self and all primary carers ought to be wary of this. A healthy environment needs to be created for the child’s grandiosity to thrive and burgeon but to prevent an over-spoil or spillage of narcissism into adulthood (secondary narcissism), optimal frustration has to be introduced to render a healthy balance. This is as important as much as loving a child else the child’s grandiosity continues unabated and spills into adulthood. The need for validation, recognition for our accomplishments, etc. continue to exist in adulthood too since we, intrinsically are goal oriented sociable human beings hence need recurrent encouragement from others but the narcissist’s ravenous appetite for accolades has to cease. The transition from ego-libido to object-libido emancipates the primary narcissist and augments the formation of a nuclear self and for this, a detachment from primary self-object is needed in order to attain a strong mature adulthood. The primary carer therefore plays a momentous role in the child’s development and nurturing a healthy adult.

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