Nobody can be kinder than the narcissist while you react to life in his own terms.
Not long ago, I was on a call with a client I deeply respect and an individual that has, through our years of work together, become a friend. He is a Regional Vice President and an individual I would easily describe as a benchmark of leadership and management. He has created superior results consistently over several decades in a cut-throat industry personified by more of an ethos of “eat or be eaten” than a philosophy of shared successes. He is one of those rare leaders that you could pick up and drop in almost any industry and would most likely find equal renowned and success given enough time.
On our bi-weekly call, I asked him what he wanted to throw on the agenda, and his response was something I had heard from other professionals at least a thousand times before. “Everything is going extremely well, but I still can’t find a consistent work-life balance.” I listened more and then asked him if I could be candid with him. His response was, “Of course.” I told him, “Walk into the bathroom, close the stall, and drop a full can of soda into the toilet. Observe the splash and then watch how long it takes for the water to return to calm. The amount of time for the splash to subside and the ripples of the water to return to normal is how long you will be missed when you retire or when you resign.” He took it in with no response. Then I piled it on heavier, “You don’t really matter, not really. You are replaceable, and any handful of leaders could step up and take your job immediately.” I then added the finale, the final coup de grace, and then plunged the dagger in deeper, “Until you realize you don’t really matter, only then will you give yourself permission to live. You can accept that message now or learn this lesson when you retire, either way, no one is as enamored with you as you are. Make your decisions accordingly.” Another long pause, and then he laughed and said, “That is the best advice you have ever given me.”
One of the quickest tactics to destroy and permanently handicap the mental game of a young leader is to provide them with responsibilities that they possess neither the experience nor maturity to fittingly handle. The mantle is heavy, and the burden can be crushing. It is precisely the reason newly commissioned officers are rarely placed on the front lines of a battle or amateurs made a new head coach in Division I athletic programs. It is not that the innate talent or intelligence is deficient or the capacity for charisma and influence is missing. It is because the inevitable failures and setbacks associated with leading people will chafe, blister, and only by way of time will they callous. Responsibility assigned too soon can permanently damage a leader, not because they will make mistakes….but because they assuredly remain under the delusion of their own grandeur and their own tales of infallibility. A pursuit of perfection and flawless execution will destroy a young leader, not because it is possible, but because when they buy into their own myth, the failures associated with it will eventually destroy them. Rare the young superhero that battles a villain or their arch nemesis and rises unscathed if they believe Gotham’s fate rests solely upon them. If the young superhero fails to encounter their arch nemesis or their Yoda, they will often rise to a place of prominence best defined as tyranny or megalomania.
Our own self-importance muddies relationships and followability, erodes our impact and limits our ability to actually see the bigger picture beyond our own self-constructed narcissism. And then, the death knell rings for the leader….there is no longer a perspective that any further growth is necessary.
When we eventually become the centerpiece of our own story or the master of our own world, the only individuals who bow, are the ones who see you as a means to an end; a resource of their own attempts to build a kingdom. And then you learn the inevitable painful lesson. Your own kingdom was breached not because you were not cautious, but because the previous worshippers were willing to sing your song and play your music until they had enough of you and your help to build their own. Choose your worshipper(s) wisely.