Narcissistic Leadership: A Review Of The Most Recent Evidence

January 26, 2017

I hate to break this to you, but every leader reading this is a narcissist. Yes, that includes you. Narcissism is a personality trait, and like many other personality traits, it exists in all of us along a continuum from low to high levels; hence, narcissistic leadership is a trait we all share to some degree.

Our naïve psychology accurately understands narcissism as associated with self-admiration, a sense of superiority, a sense of entitlement, and an inflated belief in one’s leadership abilities. Extreme narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism, lack empathy, and authorize themselves to exploit others for personal gain. An exceptional 2006 study by Timothy Judge, Jeffery LePine, and Bruce Rich suggests seven things you should expect to see from narcissists in the workplace:

  1. Narcissists are likely to also be extraverted and agreeable, but unlikely to be open to experience, conscientious, and emotionally stable.
  2. Narcissists may be detrimental in team contexts that require cooperation and a positive climate. Because they are interpersonally abrasive and dismissive, narcissists don’t make good team players.
  3. Narcissists may breed competitiveness and distrust among others because of their grandiose sense of self-importance and belief that they are an extraordinary performer.
  4. Narcissists may be very problematic in any rating system where they are required to provide a self-rating. You can expect the narcissist’s self-rating to be even more inflated than the self-ratings of other leaders.
  5. A narcissist that is forced to admit he or she has not performed well may disparage those who outperform him or her.
  6. A narcissist that receives an unfavorable evaluation can be expected to disparage the unfavorable evaluator and possible even become aggressive.
  7. A narcissist may be detrimental in jobs where a realistic conception of one’s talents and abilities are critical. For example, expect the narcissist to be an overconfident negotiator, which can be a huge liability.

Based on these findings, the authors suggested organizations should consider screening out narcissists in hiring and promotion decisions. Easier said than done, because narcissists tend to excel in job interviews and have a strong drive for positions of power and tend to emerge as leaders.

There has been some really good research done on leader narcissism since 2006. Given the contemporary interest in narcissism, what does the current evidence have to say about the effectiveness of narcissistic leaders?

A 2015 meta-analysis of narcissism and leadership concluded that narcissism is a mixed bag; neither wholly beneficial nor harmful, but is best in moderation. The authors found a curvilinear relationship between narcissism and observer-reported leadership effectiveness, suggesting that narcissism can indeed be positive up to a point. That’s actually good news for most of us, because 68% of us are within one standard deviation of the population mean for narcissism.

For the 15% of leaders that are more narcissistic than the rest of us, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that these overly narcissistic leaders can be effective if they are able to show humility. The ability of a leader to admit mistakes, limitations, and to sincerely seek the advice and feedback of others is a virtuous personal characteristic than can be developed with practice.

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 6.52.34 AMWhat happens when narcissists make it all the way to the top? In a 2015 study published in one of the top scientific journals in the field, David Zhu and Guoli Chen suggested that CEO narcissism could substantially undermine comprehensive strategic decision-making. In their longitudinal study (1997 to 2006) of 196 Fortune 500 companies, they found that a CEO’s tendency to be arrogant not only caused the CEO to discount the advice of other company directors, in many cases the CEO tended to do the exact opposite of what these other experienced leaders advised. Add these findings to previous research that showed narcissistic CEOs take bold, risky actions that can have a negative effect in stable settings that call for strategic persistence and continuous improvement, and the evidence seems to legitimize the contemporary focus on narcissism.

Don’t take my word for it. Examine the evidence in these and other recent studies decide for yourself the degree to which we need to be concerned about narcissistic leaders as stewards of our most valued resources. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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CEO Servant Leadership, Narcissism, And Company Financial Performance

The Bright And Dark Side Of A Leader’s Personality

Beware The Self-Righteous Fool 

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Comments (2)

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  1. Tiffany Brown says:

    I completely agree with your research here that narcissistic leadership can be good, but only up to a point. Seems to me that determining the balance between whether or not a particular narcissistic leader is good vs bad for the organization is really quite subjective and probably highly specific to each particular situation.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tiffany! Concur with your observation, but the evidence also supports that they are just not worth the risk.