Narcissists as Leaders: Good or Bad for Your Organization?
© 2013 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Whether in business, politics or workgroups, there is a natural tendency to select narcissistic leaders. They are attracted to leadership roles as part of their personalities – their drive for extra respect and extra attention; their belief in their own ideas; their enjoyment of winning contests; their ability to charm and persuade people; and their ability to focus narrowly in a goal (getting chosen as the leader). People looking for leaders are attracted to narcissists for similar reasons – they grab our attention; we like being charmed and persuaded; we like how hard they work to become our leaders; we naturally are attracted to stories of overcoming past challenges and visions of future success; and the average person doesn’t want the headaches of being a leader (or competing with a narcissist to get there).
So far, nothing I have said appears to be a problem. The dynamics between narcissistic leaders and members seem to be part of human nature – and may have helped us organize and survive as humans over thousands of years against endless adversity. It may be that “healthy narcissism” works – it helps people persevere in the face of incredible odds, to be unfazed by strong criticism, to get attention for unpopular (but sometimes good) ideas, and to draw together many different types of people (sometimes millions) around them and their ideas. This may be especially true in times of war and survival.
This also may be true in times of cultural revolutions, such as the popular entrepreneurs who have lead incredible break-throughs resulting in our high-tech lifestyles, such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon). News reports and commentators have referred to each of them as narcissists, yet they may be the “healthy narcissists.” Steve Jobs famously said that he didn’t do market research, because people didn’t really know what they wanted – but he did!
On the other hand, some leaders are pathological narcissists, who on the surface have many of the same appealing characteristics as healthy narcissists. Unfortunately, under the surface they meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). They are “over the top.” The Diagnostic Manual for mental health professionals (DSM-5) says that a personality disorder is a dysfunctional pattern of behavior that “leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
The manual lists several criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder, including: a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” preoccupied with “fantasies of unlimited success” and power, belief that he/she is uniquely “special,” “requires excessive admiration,” “has a sense of entitlement,” exploits relationships, “lacks empathy” and is “envious” and “arrogant.” (DSM-5) Of course, only licensed mental health professionals can make a diagnosis after a thorough assessment. Otherwise, you should never tell someone you think they are a narcissist - and it would be arrogant to do so!
Can You Tell the Difference?
Since pathological narcissists are “distressed or impaired” by definition, it would be obvious that they are not good candidates as leaders in an organization. But since it is not easy to tell the difference between healthy and pathological narcissists on the surface, what can you do? One approach is to recognize the key differences between people with personality disorders and those who may just have some traits, but not be “impaired.” There are three characteristics that distinguish people with personality disorders (any personality disorder:
Lack of self-awareness and self-reflection: They can’t see their part in the problem. This is similar to denial for an alcoholic or addict. They are defensive rather than insightful.
Lack of adaptation or change: Even though their behavior is dysfunctional, they don’t change it – because they don’t think they have a problem.
The cause of their problems is outside of them: Since they don’t see their part and they don’t change, they feel helpless or aggressively try to change other people to help them feel better.
If you are trying to decide who to promote into a leadership role, this suggests that you want to find out how well they accept feedback and whether they have ever tried to change or improve their own behavior. If the person is preoccupied with being right and with criticizing other people’s behavior, then they would appear to be less likely to be good leaders in most organizations. Especially in today’s world of rapid change and innovation, leaders need to be flexible and fast learners. Pathological narcissists need not apply.
But since it’s hard to tell the difference between healthy narcissists and pathological narcissists on the surface, would another approach be to simply avoid selecting narcissistic leaders altogether? Let’s look at the research.
Narcissists in Workgroups
In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, the authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell explain that narcissists in the workplace see themselves as great leaders and that they are more likely to be chosen as leaders by their peers. But then, over time, their peers see their “negative qualities and stop viewing them as leaders.” Studies have shown that narcissist managers are generally rated as average for problem-solving skills, but below average for “leadership skills, interpersonal skills and integrity.”
They add that narcissists in workgroups, even when they aren’t the leaders, take credit for the work of others, tend to do less work than others and blame their co-workers for problems even when they are friends. But they impress those above them in the organization. The result is that narcissists are good at “kissing up” and “kicking down.” (My terms.)
Narcissists as Business Leaders
One of the popular beliefs about the best business leaders is that they have a lot of charisma: They can stand out, grab your attention and sell you anything. Because they are seen as so outgoing, everyone is happy to follow them and work hard for them. Based on this belief, you would think narcissists make the best business leaders; the best CEOs. However, the research says exactly the opposite – this belief is wrong.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain cites research that says that what the most effective leaders have in common is that they lack charisma! Instead, many of them turn out to be those who pushed themselves to work hard – often alone – and to prove that they were good enough for the job. Many were known for their humility and their desire to bring out the best in their managers and employees. In other words, it was not all about them, but all about the business. She summarizes by saying: “We need leaders who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run.”
In The Narcissism Epidemic, the authors also make a similar point: Narcissists may be good at rising to power within an organization, but their success doesn’t last long. The reason seems to be that they are over-confident and not good team players. They sell others on an inflated image of what they can do, but they can’t fulfill it. In looking at 100 technology companies, the more narcissistic CEOs had dramatic moments of success, but overall their companies were more volatile and surpassed by companies with less narcissistic CEOs and more steady performances. Narcissists are risk-takers and this threatens the value of a company rather than enhancing it. Some narcissists may create a great company – and then crash it!
Narcissists in Politics
Recently, we have seen several political leaders who reportedly have narcissistic traits (some infamous mayors and mayoral candidates; some members of congress; some well-known businessmen). The consistent messages from them seem to be: “I/we know what’s best for everyone! I’ll never compromise.” And then they get in trouble. Consequently, very little has gotten done over the last few years, except fighting to replace narcissists with potentially more narcissists. This seems to fit the workplace and business research, suggesting that narcissists provide more noise and less productivity.
What is particularly concerning is that the current political environment has come to sound like a war zone – in terms of 24-hour news of the worst political behavior of the week, and warlike statements politicians make about each other (the “nuclear option” “end of the world as we know it” etc.). Ironically, this creates demoralization, which feeds the appeal of more extreme politicians (“I will fight for you” and “the other side is stupid, immoral and crazy.”). Since narcissists appear to have greatest appeal during wartimes, it is very likely that we will see more getting elected, not less.
Whether in business, politics and work groups, narcissists do not appear to be desirable leaders in the long run. However, the research shows that over and over again people choose narcissists for the wrong reasons: charm, charisma, persuasiveness, drive and an overpowering belief in themselves and what they are saying. Now that we live in an age when we need stability, cooperation, rational analysis and hard work to solve problems, it is especially important that we learn how to over-ride our natural emotional tendencies and avoid selecting narcissists as leaders. Ironically, this suggests that campaigns for leadership positions, in which candidates dramatically tell you how wonderful they are (and how awful the other candidates are), may be the worst way to select a leader in modern times. Therefore, if you are in a position to choose a leader, try to give yourself time and quiet to consider real information about who has the most true leadership qualities.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.