Narcissism originated from the Greek myth of Narcissus—a handsome young hunter known for his beauty. As he stops at a pond for a drink of water, Narcissus sees his reflection and becomes so enthralled with himself that he forgets about drinking the water or eating for sustenance. He tells his reflection “I love you” but is so self-absorbed, he eventually dies from starvation.
It’s a sad myth, but as in all myths, there are some hard truths one can discover. As leaders, we can often become narcissistic and focus on personal success or the accolades we receive from others. Instead of reflecting the image of Christ, we become spiritually starved by only focusing on how we appear to others.
Scripture warns about narcissistic leaders. 2 Timothy 3:2-4 says, “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, demeaning, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people.”
Wow. What a list. Yet, leaders can fall into this trap of focusing on themselves and self-preservation. And while it’s easy to read through this list and think about “others” who have these tendencies, all of us should take a different kind of look in the mirror and learn how not to be a narcissistic leader. Here are five things to consider.
Examine your worship. Do you secretly hope that people are watching you as you worship in a congregational setting or do you approach worship with an attitude of lifting up the name of Jesus and making Him famous? The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume in Luke 7 wasn’t trying to gain attention for herself, but it was out of a spirit of worship and thanksgiving to Jesus who had the power to forgive.
Examine your social media. Think back on the story of Narcissus. He lingered at the pond and could only focus on his own image. Sounds a little like some people I follow on Instagram. Are you prone to posting only about yourself or do your posts elevate others? Are you too busy promoting yourself to gain new followers? Take a quick look at your feed and see how many pictures point back to your own reflection.
Examine your relationships. It’s easy for me to examine relationships and realize that I need to ask some hard questions about my leadership. Maybe some of these are questions you need to answer as well. Questions like: Are you “using” people or actually trying to invest in them? Do you serve others or want to be served? Do you avoid criticism or accountability? Do you manipulate others? Consider ways you can encourage those in your leadership. A narcissistic leader who uses others for their own advantage can negatively impact how they view God.
Examine your Bible reading and prayer life. I’m not against personal application when reading Scripture, but are you always looking for yourself in the passage or are you looking for Jesus? Do you approach Bible study asking God to give you a “to do” list of things that will make your life happier or more prosperous, or do you approach the Bible with an attitude of “I want to know Christ better and be conformed to His image”?
Examine your motives. Are you a leader who is more prone to competition or comparison? Do you worry that the spotlight is on someone else? Can you rejoice in the success of others? James speaks to this kind of pride and how it hinders our prayers when he says in James 4:3, “You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” In other words, are your motives pure?
If your desire is to not be a narcissistic leader, let’s adopt the attitude Paul writes about in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on others.
Kelly D. King in the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for LifeWay Christian Resources. You can hear Kelly speak at You Lead events that are held in various cities throughout the country each year. She is also the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide to Leading Women in the Local Church. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kellydking.