Do we live in a country led by narcissists?

by Dr Paul Vorster | Published on 25 October 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

The modern term, “narcissist”, which we generally use to describe someone who is overly self-absorbed, has its roots in Greek mythology. The story goes that Narcissus was a man who was well known for his physical attractiveness and beauty, but also for his pride and arrogance. He tended to show disdain for those who loved him and would encourage his admirers to commit suicide to prove their devotion. The god Nemesis, disapproving of this behaviour, punished Narcissus by luring him to a pool of water, where he could see his own reflection. Narcissus was so enamoured by his own image that he kept staring at it, unable tear himself away, until he withered away, leaving behind only a flower. 

Narcissist Image source:

With the smorgasbord of recent ethical breaches in both the public and private sectors in South Africa, it would seem that we are in a “state of capture” not by the Guptas, but by a cabal of arrogant, narcissistic leaders who feel entitled to positions of power.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2013), Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterised by, among other things, an overexaggerated sense of one’s importance, ability and entitlement, and an unwillingness to empathise and take the needs of others into consideration. In the workplace, narcissistic behaviour plays out as a reluctance to give others credit, domination in conversation, regular self-referencing, and shutting down disagreement. Less formally, it is not difficult to spot narcissistic behaviour in those who are boastful about their own accomplishments and who lose interest in the sort of activities that do not elevate them. The modern world in fact seems to encourage narcissistic behaviour via social medial platforms dedicated to presenting the ‘self’ in a socially desirable manner. This makes users hyper aware of their own projected image, and rewards them for being self-promoting.

Narcissism has been shown to correlate with unethical leadership behaviours in the workplace, such as one-way communication; one-way control of power; insensitivity to others; unrealistic assessments of the environment (believing their point of view because it is theirs, despite contrary evidence from others); manipulative communication (overinflating their own accomplishments and playing down their failures); and pseudo-transformational behaviours, such as overinflating facts to suit their arguments (Blair et al., 2017). Narcissistic behaviours by leaders in organisations have been correlated with follower alienation; fluctuations in organisational performance; and managerial turnover (Blair et al., 2017). This is in part because narcissists do not take their colleagues into consideration, steal recognition from them, and blame others for their mistakes.

From an ethical perspective, narcissism is a major risk factor and may result in unethical decision-making and behaviour, as it involves ignoring the needs of others, and being stubbornly oblivious to one’s own failings.

With the smorgasbord of recent ethical breaches in both the public and private sectors in South Africa, it would seem that we are in a “state of capture” not by the Guptas, but by a cabal of arrogant, narcissistic leaders who feel entitled to positions of power.

Just think a moment about the likes of Qedani Mahlangu, the former Gauteng MEC for Health and Social Development, who was implicated in the Life Esidimeni Tragedy for signing off on the relocation of mentally ill patients to under-equipped service providers. Approximately 143 of those patients died from causes such as malnourishment (starvation), exposure, self-harm and general neglect. These were vulnerable people, and their deaths represent a terrible failing beyond description. Mahlangu was hard to find in the early weeks of the hearings into the tragedy, as she was otherwise engaged with exams overseas. When she (finally) appeared, her first testimony involved complaining that she had been poorly treated by state security agents at the airport and that she was being harassed by a drone hovering over her house. When it came to it, she leaned heavily on the collective decision-making process that led to the tragedy, rather than her own authority, even stating at one point that the heads of department were to blame.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the former SABC Chief Operating Officer, is another example of a leader with clear narcissistic characteristics. Motsoeneng is somewhat notorious for referring to himself in the third person during interviews, but was once quoted as saying, “I believe everywhere I am, I perform miracles, and I will perform miracles in my new position”.  Unfortunately, Hlaudi’s miracles inflicted major financial and reputational damage on the public broadcaster, but you won’t hear him admitting as much today.

Former President Jacob Zuma, who resigned from office due to pressure from the ANC, asked with (somewhat unnerving) sincerity what he had done wrong. Clearly, to him, all was well. Other leaders currently in the spotlight who could be viewed as possibly demonstrating narcissistic characteristics are Markus Jooste (Steinhoff) and Tom Moyane (SARS). Their cases are very different, certainly, but they share a common refusal to accept responsibility for the damage caused by their leadership to their respective organisations.

One recent exception seems to be Nhlanhla Nene, the former Minister of Finance, who admitted to his mistakes and asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to remove him from office. Nene’s admission and contrition – his ability to say “I made a mistake, I am sorry” – was a breath of fresh air in what has become a toxic environment. Narcissists, unlike Nene, appear to be incapable of honest introspection. They are not the sort of people who should be in positions of power.  

So how do narcissists work their way into positions of power? Research has some answers.

Paulhus et al. (2013) explain that narcissists do very well in job interviews and leaderless group exercises (a technique often used to evaluate and select leaders), as they use self-promotion (self-enhancement and self-praise) and ingratiation (humour, smiling and tactical modesty) to present their best selves. Additionally, their self-confidence, charisma, and one-way communication are often perceived by others as ‘leader-like’ qualities. To add to this, Hogan et al. (1990) demonstrate how narcissists are attracted to leadership positions due to the status and entitlement that comes with them, and therefore the selection pool for top leadership positions tends to be saturated with individuals with these characteristics.

To muddy the water a bit, though, Blair et al. (2017) indicate that narcissists may implement self-serving decisions that result in positive outcomes for organisations initially. This is especially so for situations that are chaotic or ambiguous, or within organisational cultures that are aggressive. Unfortunately, this limited success comes at the expense of followers and the overall culture of the organisation and may result in ethics breaches over the long term.


APA (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Blair, C. A., Helland, K., & Walton, B. (2017). Leaders behaving badly: The relationship between narcissism and unethical leadership. Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 38 (2), 333-346.

Hogan, R., Raskin, R., & Fazzini, D. (1990). The dark side of charisma. In, K. E. Clark and M. B. Clark (Eds.), Measures of Leadership (pp. 343 – 354). West Orange, NJ: Leadership Library of America.

Paulhus, D. L., Westlake, B. G., Calvez, S. S. & Harms, P. D. (2013). Self-presentation style in job-interviews: The role of personality and culture. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 2042 – 2059.

Paul circle


 Dr Paul Vorster is a Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute. He holds a doctorate of Industrial Psychology, which he attained from the University of Johannesburg.