A founder's complicated relationship with narcissism

  • by Amando Abreu
  • on 29 July 2023

Narcissism, often characterized by an inflated sense of one’s abilities and an obsessive need for admiration, has a complicated relationship with startup success. While some degree of narcissism can propel a startup founder to achieve great things, an overabundance can lead to significant problems.

This can be interesting to take into consideration if you’re needing to evaluate founders for whatever reason:

  • You are considering working with one
  • You are considering investing in one
  • You are considering buying something from one

The Positive Aspects of Narcissism in Startups

1. Charisma and Leadership: Narcissistic individuals often have a natural charisma that can inspire others to follow them. Their ability to articulate their vision and their unwavering belief in it can be infectious, rallying a team to strive towards a common goal.

2. Resilience in the Face of Failure: Startups are inherently fraught with failures and setbacks. Narcissistic individuals often have a high resilience to failure, viewing setbacks as temporary obstacles rather than insurmountable problems. This attitude can help a startup to persevere where others might give up.

3. Personal Branding and Positioning: The self-assuredness that accompanies narcissism often translates into a strong personal brand. In a crowded marketplace, this ability to stand out can be a significant advantage, attracting attention and investment.

The Potential Pitfalls of Narcissism in Startups

1. Overemphasis on Self at the Expense of the Team: A narcissistic founder might place themselves at the center of everything, overshadowing the team’s efforts. This can lead to resentment, hinder collaboration, and cause talented individuals to leave, weakening the startup’s foundation.

2. Ethical Blindness: Intense focus on success may lead to a disregard for ethical considerations. This can not only harm the company’s reputation but also lead to legal issues that can cripple a startup.

3. Difficulty in Building Long-term Relationships: Building sustainable business relationships requires empathy and mutual respect. Narcissistic tendencies can make it difficult to establish and maintain these relationships, hampering long-term growth.

Striking the Right Balance: Practical Strategies

1. Self-awareness and Reflection: Leaders who recognize their narcissistic tendencies can actively work on them. Engaging in self-reflection, seeking feedback, and being willing to make changes can mitigate the negative effects.

2. Building a Complementary Team: Surrounding oneself with team members who have complementary skills and perspectives can create a more balanced and effective leadership approach. For example, if a founder is aware of their lack of empathy, they might partner with someone who excels in human relations.

3. Implementing Checks and Balances: Creating a culture that values diverse perspectives and encourages open communication can act as a counterbalance to narcissistic tendencies. Checks and balances ensure that decisions are well-considered, rather than impulsive reflections of a single person’s vision.

4. Professional Coaching or Mentorship: Engaging with a mentor or coach who understands the dynamics of narcissism can provide personalized guidance and support in leveraging its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.

Detecting them

If you’re looking to identify traits of unhealthy narcissism in a startup founder, asking probing questions that focus on empathy, teamwork, personal reflection, and responsibility can be revealing. An unhealthy narcissist might struggle with the following questions:

  1. Can you describe a situation where you were wrong, and how you handled it? (May struggle to admit mistakes or show vulnerability)

  2. How do you ensure that every team member’s voice is heard and valued within the company? (May show lack of interest or ability in fostering collaboration)

  3. What values guide your leadership, and how do you align your actions with these values? (May have difficulty articulating core values beyond success or personal gain)

  4. Can you share a specific example of when you prioritized the needs or feelings of others in a decision-making process? (May show a lack of empathy or consideration for others)

  5. How do you handle constructive criticism, and can you give an example of how you’ve implemented feedback to make positive changes? (May have difficulty accepting or learning from criticism)

  6. What are some concrete ways you’ve contributed to the personal and professional growth of your team members? (May be more focused on personal achievement rather than developing others)

  7. How do you balance the pursuit of your vision with ethical considerations, and can you provide an example? (May struggle to demonstrate ethical reasoning if primarily focused on personal success)

  8. Can you describe a time when you needed to change course due to unanticipated challenges or feedback, and how you managed it? (May resist acknowledging the need to adapt or change)

These questions are designed to dig beneath surface-level confidence and ambition to explore deeper values, empathy, self-awareness, and adaptability. They can help to illuminate potential red flags in a startup founder’s approach, particularly if narcissism is manifesting in unhealthy or detrimental ways.

Feel free to ask for references from:

  • Current or past customers
  • Past business partners
  • Past employees
  • Past employers

Organizational Culture and Long-term Sustainability

Unhealthy narcissism not only affects the individual founder but can permeate the entire organization’s culture. Here are some things to look out for:

1. Culture of Fear: An organization led by an unhealthy narcissist might develop a culture where dissent is discouraged, and employees fear speaking up. This stifling environment can hinder innovation and growth.

2. Employee Burnout: The relentless pursuit of success at all costs might lead to overwork and burnout among team members. A lack of concern for the well-being of employees can cause high turnover and loss of valuable talent.

3. Short-term Focus: An excessive focus on personal gain or immediate success might lead to decisions that neglect the long-term health of the company. Sustainable growth requires a balanced approach that considers the broader impact and long-term viability.

4. Reputational Risk: The behaviors associated with unhealthy narcissism can damage the reputation of the company. This reputational risk might deter potential customers, investors, or partners, and have lasting impacts on the business.

5. HiPPO Culture: HiPPOs are leaders that are so blindly sure of their own decision-making skills that they don’t take into account anyone else’s ideas, opinions, actual real-life usage data, or user feedback.

Telltale signs

Most learning comes from failure, if one makes failure not an option, they also make learning not an option

Here’s a list of some telltale signs you might be dealing with an overly narcissistic founder:

  • “If you don’t like my way, you can always start your own company.”
  • “Failure is not an option.” -> Most learning comes from failure, if one makes failure not an option, they also make learning not an option
  • “I expect everyone to work as hard as I do.” -> Struggles to understand that other people are not themselves
  • Grandiose Plans or Visions: They may have unrealistic or overly ambitious plans for the company, which are often based more on their own self-image than realistic expectations or market conditions. A certain level of this is required, but if it has zero grounding in reality, it’s probably hot air.
  • Absolute need to be in control of everything, potentially whilst at the same time saying they don’t want to micromanage
  • Completely unable to integrate feedback from others into their own thinking.
  • Inability to respect boundaries; Constantly stretching boundaries.
  • Very “flexible” relationship with reality and facts.


Narcissism’s relationship with startup success is complex and multifaceted. While certain narcissistic traits can drive a startup towards success, an unchecked and unbalanced approach can lead to a host of problems.

I think a certain level of narcissism is good, and probably required to even get involved in startups and think you have a chance to make it. So don’t interpret this article as a negative one.

The problem just becomes more serious when there is too much narcissism, and I hope to have given you some pointers on how to detect it, whether you’re considering working for a founder, investing in one, on a board of a startup, or if you yourself need help keeping your narcissism in check.

Understanding the dual nature of narcissism and actively working to foster an environment that leverages its strengths while avoiding its pitfalls is essential. It requires a nuanced and thoughtful leadership approach, coupled with a commitment to personal growth and a willingness to embrace the collaborative nature of the startup ecosystem.

In the competitive world of startups, the leaders who can navigate these complexities will be best positioned to innovate, grow, and succeed.

About the author

Amando Abreu is a serial entrepreneur, Fractional CTO, and engineer who has been involved in several startups and launched dozens of products. He has worked with companies such as trivago, Portugal Telecom, and Vizrt. He has experience in several industries, most notably e-commerce, SaaS, media, travel, insurance, property development, and construction.
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