He’s bright, well-educated, and accomplished. He comes with a resumé full of success stories and seems polished and confident. All indications are that this is your ideal candidate, or is he? How do you know you are not about to hire a toxic narcissist? Your dilemma is that some of the very qualities that make for a world-class leader are also characteristics of the toxic leader. Before you choose your next leader, think carefully through the following to be sure you separated the talented from the toxic.
1) Look for a “Wake” – Just like a fast ski boat cutting through the water, toxic leaders will leave a wake behind themselves. Broken relationships, damaged teams, crippled organizations, and other signs of mayhem will be the pattern in the history of the candidate. Checking references is not enough. Everyone offers up their best buddies and their most cherished relationships as references for job interviews. You need to call around to find others in the candidate’s field who might know of their reputation. Search out colleagues who might have awareness of any left behind wake of destruction.
2) Sharing Credit/Taking Blame – One classic sign of the narcissistic leader is the consistent tendency to take all the credit for success while simultaneously rejecting any culpability for failure. It is always an excellent idea to ask your candidate, “Can you tell us a time when you failed and how you dealt with that failure?” Now, listen carefully to the subtext of the answer. Watch body language and eye movement. Listen carefully for the pronouns used. If the candidate shifts the blame and accepts none for herself, if she positions herself as the victorious hero of the story, or if she fails to be able to analyze deeply the reason for the failure, then a few warning lights ought to go off in your head.
3) Ability to Create a Team – Toxic leaders will consistently struggle to build great teams. Instead, what they will build is a group of people given marching orders by a leader who will then call this “a team.” It is not. World class leaders know how to create psychological safety. They know how to uplift each person on the team. They grow more and better leaders. And, they easily and naturally share the credit with those other leaders. The narcissistic leader cannot do these things because, in their minds, it diminishes them and dims the spotlight they believe they alone deserve.
If you want to see a powerful example of exactly what a toxic, narcissistic leader looks like, then I highly recommend to you the recent bestselling book by John Carreyrou, Bad Blood. His portrayal of both Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani and Elizabeth Holmes offers a crystal clear picture of exactly what I have described above. Both Balwani and Holmes left behind a frightening wake of squandered funds and damaged people. It is a story you do not want to repeat at your organization!