I’ve been studying narcissistic pastors for a few years. And so therefore, I’ve been reading everything I can about Mark Driscoll as the drama has been unfolding. First it was accusations of plagiarism, then questionable use of church funds to promote his own book, and most recently bullying. I don’t know Mark, have never been to Mars Hill Church, and have no idea whether the accusations are true or false. But he leads one of the largest churches in the country, helped start the Acts 29 church planting network (from which he was recently kicked out), and is arguably one of the strongest evangelical voices in America. And the accusations are serious enough to have made the front page of the New York Times last month, and caused Mark to step down from his church until the internal investigation is complete.
When I put Mark Driscoll and “narcissistic” in the same sentence, half of you are saying, “Nailed it.” The other half are saying, “Leave him alone!” Before you give me a high five for taking "your side" or a Bible lesson in slander—let me give you my working definition of a narcissistic leader.
I borrow my definition from Michael Maccoby, author of Narcissistic Leaders. He is a management consultant and anthropologist—and in this book he publishes his study of human behavior and some of the greatest leaders of our time.
By Maccoby’s definition—narcissism is not a sin (remember, he's not a pastor or theologian). Rather, it is a personality type, and one of four dominant types he outlines in his book.
If you’re like me, you think of a narcissist as a vain, self-centered egomaniac. And they can be, but saying someone is self-centered or egotistical is a description of bad behavior rather than a portrait of a personality type.
Rather, a narcissist is a person who looks at the world as a place that needs changing. But unlike most people who fit that description, the narcissist goes beyond that, and actually believes she can change it. She rejects how things are for how things should be. Narcissists do not react to the external world so much as they try to create it.
A true narcissist is the kind of person who 1) doesn’t listen to anyone else when he believes in doing something and 2) has a precise vision of how things should be.
And doesn’t that describe nearly EVERY church planter or founding pastor you’ve ever met? It takes a certain personality type to go into a community when people are saying, “We don’t need another church here!” and “You’ll never find a place to meet!” – and yet they relentlessly cast a vision for what a new community of faith might look like.
It is the combination of a rejection of the status quo, along with a compelling vision, that defines the narcissist.
Maccoby says this:
“They are independent thinkers who act out of freedom, even when it means taking big risks. They are all motivated by a vision of changing the world, creating something that shapes not only their own future but that of their followers. They use everything they can, including people, to implement their vision. They are passionate, energized by their vision, charismatically drawing others into their internal dialogue. They know exactly who is with them and who is against them, and are alert to threats.”
Think about famous leaders who fit this definition: Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi and Winston Churchill.
What about Rick Warren? A few years ago he stood up and told the world he was launching an international alliance of churches, businesses, ministries, universities, and other institutions for the purpose of working together to address the five "Global Giants" that affect billions of people worldwide: spiritual emptiness, lack of servant leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic diseases, and illiteracy. Who does that? I’ll tell you—a narcissist who rejects the status quo and has a compelling vision of how the world should look.
What about Steven Furtick or Perry Noble or Bill Hybels or scores of other pastors who went into a community where they believed the gospel wasn’t reaching the unconvinced—and they started with a few people and a dream and launched a local church that is now reaching thousands.
Maccoby says there are eight primary strengths that are dominant in just about every productive narcissist who he has worked with or studied:
- A vision to change the world and create meaning.
- Independent thinking and risk taking. They don’t like to follow rules and don’t like to bend to other people’s ideas of change unless they initiated it. In Acts 15, Peter talked about a church for the Jews and the Gentiles. He bucked against all the rules of the day and cast a vision for a different way to reach the world.
- Passion. This person tends to be a workaholic, not because they can’t get all the work done; they want to keep working because they believe it is changing the world!
- Charisma. Productive narcissists have an undeniable emotional pull on others.
- Voracious learning. They seek to learn everything they can in topics they are passionate about. This doesn’t mean they are good students: they are often bored with classes or don’t want to fit into the structure. But they are self-learners.
- Perseverance. Failing doesn’t deter them; they get up, learn from it, and try a different angle. Consider Paul in 2 Corinthians 11: “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked…” That’s a narcissistic leader who faced some obstacles!
- Alertness to threats. It is said of narcissistic leaders – you are either a friend or a foe to them, and there is no in-between. Are you helping them pull the wagon in the direction they are going? If so, great. If not, get out of the way.
- Sense of humor. The ability to make others laugh, and even make fun of themselves, is one of the most important and endearing characteristics of narcissists.
I think every church I’ve worked with or been around that is on a fast growth track has been led by a narcissistic leader. And I’ve seen many of these strengths at front and center.
But as with every personality type—there comes a corresponding set of weaknesses. The same narcissistic pastors who have a vision to change the world (and often do) can sometimes be the most difficult people in the world to work with and for. Maccoby lists ten weaknesses that are often found in narcissistic leaders:
- Doesn’t listen. Often the very thing that takes the narcissist to the top of the game in his or her field is the very thing that brings him or her down. They realize that it was that very characteristic (not listening to the crowd) that enabled their success, so they don’t tune into things they should be listening to later on.
- Oversensitive to criticism. Sometimes they respond to criticism by devaluing the person who said it, attempting to negate the truth of the words.
- Paranoia. This is the corresponding weakness to being alert to threats. They have an excessive focus on what might happen to them or who might be against them.
- Anger and Put-Downs. They make people feel stupid because they don’t understand the vision.
- Overcompetiveness. With pastors, the competition might show up in comments about another pastor or a conference speaker.
- Overcontrol. These leaders have a hard time letting their staff do anything without wanting to control and decide everything.
- Isolation. They feel very alone, sometimes because they believe they have no peers—everyone is a tool to accomplish their vision.
- Exaggeration and Lying. Narcissists tend to ignore anything that stands in the way of their vision. They treat the vision as though it has already become reality. I’ve been around narcissists who are so separated from reality that they aren’t intentionally lying—they literally believe in their head that something happened the way it did, and no one around them is strong enough to correct them.
- Lack of Self-Knowledge. They don’t do self-introspection very well. They have to make big decisions that affect thousands of people and can’t allow anxieties, self-doubt or any hint of guilt get in the way of their decision making. They often justify their behavior as necessary to the vision.
- Grandiosity. Maccoby says: “Narcissists don’t have a monopoly on the seven deadly sins, but they do run a greater risk of grandiosity, and the simple sin of pride than other personality types”.
Once productive narcissists start to succeed, fame and admiration can begin to chip away at their already tenuous hold on reality. In the worst cases, they begin to put themselves above the interests of the organization or church. We’ve all seen examples of this way too often in the church world. I experienced this a few years ago with a friend very close to me. Pride takes leaders down faster than anything.
In the best situations, a narcissistic leader has surrounded himself or herself with other spiritual leaders for counsel and accountability. They have friends who will occasionally hold up a mirror and speak truth them.
I think it is obvious, according to Maccoby's definition, that Mark Driscoll is a narcissistic leader. There is no way he could have accomplished what he has without the myopic focus of a narcissistic personality. It’s up to others to determine whether his narcissism has overtaken him and led him down the difficult path he now faces.
I have a tremendous opportunity to coach executive pastors, and a few years ago I met with the executive pastors from 50 of the largest churches in America. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of narcissistic leaders. When asked for a raise of hands, more than 75% of the leaders in the room described their boss (aka senior pastor) as a narcissistic leader, and more than 50% said it also described themselves.
You might work with a narcissistic leader, or you might be one. In my next post, I will tackle three things you can do if you work for a narcissistic leader, and three things you can do if you are a narcissistic leader.
Subscribe to LeadingSmart.com and receive articles directly to your email.