Narcissism and leadership: Does it work to be a jerk?

Posted on under Today's research

Well, now it’s official—what we’ve always known: narcissists are more likely to become leaders (witness DT) and they are also more likely to be bad leaders (again, witness DT).

Ask most workers if they’ve ever had a narcissist for a boss and you’ll hear stories of leaders who have taken credit for others’ work, made decisions without consulting others and used every opportunity to talk about themselves.

Yet, there have been scholars who have argued that the confidence that comes with narcissism is essential for leader success (some of these studies have been reported in TR). Research has yielded mixed findings—some studies have shown narcissism relates to poorer organizational outcomes while others find that narcissistic leaders are more effective.

What the researchers say: A newly published study sought to conclusively answer the question: Do narcissists make good leaders?

The researchers reviewed existing literature and aggregated past and current research to come up with an answer: Though narcissists were more likely to attain leadership positions, there was no direct relationship between narcissism and leaders’ success.

The research also discovered a nonlinear relationship between narcissism and leader effectiveness using previously unanalyzed data looking at personality assessment for hiring decisions. Specifically, the study found, bosses with either extremely high or extremely low levels of narcissism were poorer leaders.

“Our findings are pretty clear that the answer to the question as to whether narcissism is good or bad is that it is neither. It’s best in moderation,” said the lead author of the study. “With too little, a leader can be viewed as insecure or hesitant, but if you’re too high on narcissism, you can be exploitative or tyrannical.”

The study found that those with moderate levels of narcissism have achieved “a nice balance between having sufficient levels of self-confidence, but do not manifest the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism that involve putting others down to feel good about themselves.” The team, which has conducted extensive research on maladaptive traits in the workplace, said finding that narcissism can be a double-edged sword is not new.

“Narcissists are usually very good in short-term situations when meeting people for the first time. But the impression they create quickly falls apart,” they said. “You soon realize that they are nowhere as good or as smart as they say they are.”

Those in charge of hiring or promoting leaders for their organization should proceed with caution, they added.

“Narcissists are great in interview situations—if you can reduce a leadership contest down to sound bites, you will give them an advantage,” the lead author said. “But as time goes on, they become increasingly annoying. At the personal level, they can be jerks. At the strategic level, they can take huge gambles because they’re so confident they’re right. They’re either making a fortune or they’re going broke.”

The researchers said the findings thus far show organizations should be wary of creating hiring and promotion practices that cater to narcissists’ strengths—but they should not assume the very low levels of narcissism make better candidates.

They added that research is needed to determine if narcissists function better in some leadership situations than others. The risk-taking and persuasiveness of narcissists may make them strong leaders in the midst of chaos, she said, but those traits could create problems in a more stable environment.

So what? I have personally met with few leaders who were genuine full-blown narcissists—mostly, I suppose, they don’t think they need me, or my firm’s, help. So be it. But this is important research because it fits in with what we know about human leadership genetics.

Humans are not genetically geared to have leaders in normal times—virtually no hunter-gatherer band has a leader as such. Decisions are made by consensus, and, in my observation of living with them for a year, are usually right. However, in times of crisis, they turn to a leader who has the self-confidence to make swift decisions. Generally, these people have a degree of narcissism. The problem with narcissistic leaders is that they often manufacture crises to justify their absolute authority. We see this in many of the world’s most authoritarian leaders—most of whom are the genuine narcissistic article.

What now? I think that the researchers’ guidelines for hiring leaders are good and should be followed. However, I also think that we need to rethink the structure of many firms and corporations and ask ourselves whether we can’t get rid of many of the layers of leadership and open them up to more consensus decision-making.