It’s Narcissist Friday!
Over and over we hear about pastors, organization leaders, and business leaders who are narcissists. We have seen serious abuses of position and people from these leaders. And one question that is asked when the abuses come to light is, “What about the board?” Most of these leaders have a board, a group of administrators, who should be watching over the actions of the leader. Why were they not doing their job?
For example, one leader of a large Christian organization is now being sued by several women for abuses that happened over the years. In several cases, these actions were brought out before, sometimes years before. This leader resigned, more than once, and was quickly returned to his position as though nothing had happened. There are allegations that the ministry directors, the “Board,” knew about the offenses. Yet, they allowed this leader back and little changed. Why didn’t they do their job?
It is a common story in business also. The board of directors appears to sit by idly while the new CEO makes changes that weaken the company almost to the point of closure. Investors, employees, and the rest of us ask, “Where is the board?” The only answer we can imagine is that the board agrees with the decisions.
Some people suggest that narcissism is a desirable characteristic in a leader. Businesses and organizations, even some churches, want leaders who will shoulder the hard decisions: ruthlessly downsizing employee numbers or taking over other companies, for example. Since narcissists are able to move forward without sympathy for the suffering of others, they are perfect candidates for leading serious change.
I know of one church where the pastor was hired to make the church grow. He warned the leadership that he would make decisions they would not like. He demanded full authority to hire and fire and spend money. He got everything he asked for, and they accepted his warnings. When he moved the church out of the community, sold the building, fired the existing staff and hired new, these leaders allowed all of it. The church grew but lost almost all of the original members, including most of the leaders who brought in the new pastor.
How does a narcissistic leader get by with so much? Why does the board allow these abuses? Well, sometimes the board is complicit from the beginning. The leader simply does what the board wanted to do but was unwilling. Since the narcissist willingly accepts the negative from people who don’t matter to him in order to gain the praise and admiration from those who do, the board gets its way without accountability.
But there may be other reasons a board will sit and allow a narcissistic leader to ruin an organization. First, we have to understand how a narcissist is hired. As I have already said, sometimes the narcissist does just what the board wanted to be done. But sometimes the narcissist comes across as so competent and so desirable that the board feels fortunate to find such a person. You and I would be surprised at how few boards do their homework when hiring a narcissist. The presentation of the candidate overwhelms common sense. Questions are left unasked. Documents are left unread. The information may be available, but ignored in the shining light of the narcissist.
Then, realizing they didn’t do their homework, board members often support the narcissist because they are too embarrassed to admit their failure. No matter what the narcissist does, they support him/her to avoid exposing themselves. This doesn’t only happen in churches or other small organizations. Large businesses have suffered from the same unwillingness to admit fault.
If the board members do begin to see actions or attitudes they don’t like, or if they dare to disagree with the narcissist, they may soon find themselves replaced. When you investigate the boards of most organizations led by narcissists, you will find that the narcissist had a controlling hand in appointing or nominating new members. Supporters from the past, sycophants from inside or outside the organization, are brought in primarily because they will not stand against the narcissist.
And when we ask why these new board members are so supportive of the narcissist, we may discover something truly disturbing. Some are so overwhelmed with admiration and love for the narcissist that they will never see the errors or abuses. They have always been available for the narcissist’s use. They will conspire against anyone who opposes the narcissist/hero, and they will vocally agree with any decision he suggests.
There may also be a darker side. Narcissists are adept at learning about others. They know the little (or big) compromises. They know what it will take to buy the loyalty of some people, and they know what scandals are in the lives others. Some have received “favors.” Others have received threats. By the time the narcissist chooses board members, those members will be unquestioningly loyal.
The board of directors, or whatever it is called in your organization, has the responsibility of representing the people and protecting the interests of the organization. You have a right to expect them to stand up to the narcissist when the abuses begin. But they probably won’t.