We all know who they are – those narcissists who seem to rise quickly in organizations only to crash and burn eventually. We can point to failed corporate leaders such as Bob Nardelli of Home Depot, Tony Hayward of BP and Ken Lay of Enron as prime examples of such leaders. However, others point to leaders like Steve Jobs and Jack Welch, who are seen by some as narcissistic and yet have led their companies to great success. So how do we sort out the relationship between narcissistic leaders and team/organizational success or failure?
Some researchers say that not only do we like narcissists, but they tend to make for better leaders. Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer (2015) has argued that narcissism “helps people attain leadership positions in the first place and then, once in them, positively affects their ability to hold on to those positions, extract more resources (salary), and even helps in some, although not all, aspects of their performance on the job.” (pp. 71-72). In summarizing a meta-analysis of individual differences related to effective leadership, he points to four traits that he says narcissists have more of: energy, dominance, self-confidence, and charisma. He also explains that one of the reasons why women and Asian Americans are less frequently chosen for leadership roles is because they are on average more modest and self-effacing, and therefore less narcissistic than men. Finally, he claims that companies prefer “immodest, grandiose, and narcissistic leaders” (p. 83) and they continue to select and promote those who exhibit these qualities.
It’s important to gain some clarity on this concept of narcissism since there is much confusion about what it is in the first place. For example, Kets de Vries (1994) has pointed out that narcissism is not necessarily dysfunctional; there is a difference between healthy or constructive narcissism and unhealthy or destructive narcissism. He suggests that there are three different types of narcissists: the reactive one who is cold, ruthless and exhibitionistic, and has a sense of entitlement; the self-deceptive one who is Machiavellian and who lacks empathy; and the constructive one, who is ambitious and self-confident. In their view, the constructive narcissist can become a good leader; in fact, “a certain dose of narcissism is necessary to function effectively” … and … “we all show signs of narcissistic behavior.” (p. 588). Similarly, Maccoby (1990) refers to “productive narcissists” who may be good for an organization, although even they should not be left unchecked. However, in my experience, it is not always easy to distinguish between these different types of narcissists. Not all those who are energetic, dominant, self-confident and charismatic are pathological narcissists.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and lists criteria such as the following: grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success or power, and a belief in one’s special or unique status. “Subclinical” or non-pathological narcissism is different; whereas pathological narcissism is associated with arrogance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, subclinical narcissism is defined as having an inflated sense of self-importance and extremely high levels of self-esteem. A widely-used measure of subclinical narcissism is The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) scale, which scores people on narcissism based on their responses to statements such as: People always seem to recognize my authority, I really like to be the center of attention, I am apt to show off if I get the chance, and I always know what I am doing.
An important contribution to this topic is a recent study by Grijalva et al. (2015), who did an extensive meta-analysis of the literature. They start out by stating that there is no consensus on the relationship between narcissism and leadership. Their meta-analysis focuses on studies of subclinical narcissism, and what they found was very interesting. First, narcissism is related to leadership emergence, although that relationship decreased over time; that is, the longer the leader spent time with followers, the weaker the relationship. We are attracted to individuals with “leader-like” qualities such as those that Professor Pfeffer has mentioned (e.g., dominance, self-confidence). However, according to these authors, to know them is not to like them too much. Second, they found that when the effects of extroversion were sorted out, that relationship weakened considerably. In other words, much of the reason for why narcissists are selected as leaders is because they are also extroverted.
Third, Grijalva and her colleagues also found a wide range of relationships between narcissism and leadership effectiveness. On average, narcissists were no more or less likely to become effective leaders. The authors in fact found an inverted U-shaped relationship; leaders who are weak as well as those who are very strong narcissists don’t tend to become effective leaders.
My own experience supports the research evidence that self-confident, sociable and likeable people are more likely to be selected and promoted into leadership positions. A recruiter I know once explained to me that his corporate client wanted him to find an executive with “gravitas” or “executive presence.” A self-confident and charming manager who is technically competent and gets results will in many Western organizations get promoted before the equally competent, results-oriented manager who is perhaps too self-effacing and introverted.
I also believe that productive narcissists can contribute to team and organizational success - to a point. Perhaps, as Grijalva et al. suggest, there is a level in which too much narcissism becomes dysfunctional. I would argue however that there are two elements of narcissism that if left unchecked, can be fatal in the workplace: an overriding interest in fulfilling one’s own needs versus the organization’s needs, and a lack of empathy or humility. I would not disagree with those who would argue for example that both Steve Jobs and Jack Welch were narcissistic; yet it was clear that both also subordinated their personal needs for the good of their organizations. This passion they had for putting their organization’s needs ahead of themselves (for the most part anyway) was important to their respective companies’ success.
How do narcissists fare in other cultural settings? There is evidence that displays of extreme self-confidence are not always welcome in non-Western contexts. In an interesting study, Zhang et al. (2015) suggest that paradoxical leadership behaviors are actually aligned with the Eastern yin-yang philosophy, where two opposing forces can be integrated. Among the paradoxical behaviors they identified are those associated with combining self-centeredness (certainly a component of narcissism) with other-centeredness. Others include the following:
· Shows a desire to lead, but allows others to share this leadership role
· Likes to be the center of attention, but allows others to share the spotlight as well
· Insists on getting respect, but also shows respect toward others
· Has a high self-opinion, but shows awareness of personal imperfection and the value of other people
· Is confident regarding personal ideas and beliefs, but acknowledges that he or she can learn from others.
They found that among their samples of Chinese students, a combination of narcissism and humility was related to leadership effectiveness. While these authors suggest that humility may counterbalance narcissism, will different cultures accept lesser or higher levels of narcissism and humility depending on where their cultural values are in terms of power distance, individualism, and uncertainty avoidance? And what about context? When individuals perceive threats to their environment, do those who show narcissistic characteristics tend to be perceived as better leaders?
In the meantime, here are a couple of take-aways from all this research. First, individuals who wish to aspire to leadership roles would do well to adapt some leader-like skills such as energy and self-confidence. However, the extent to which these are displayed may depend on culture and context. For example, Cain (2012) has suggested that introverts and Asian-Americans can become successful leaders by using more of their soft power, such as having strong convictions and persistence. Note, however, that using soft power does not mean reducing one’s energy or self-confidence. Second, organizations should be careful in being seduced by those who may have the sizzle but not the steak (an expression I once heard from an executive when describing the dangers of picking style over substance). Learning to distinguish between constructive and pathological narcissists may be difficult, but it is important for organizations to avoid hiring and promoting the latter.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Broadway Books.
Grijalva, E., Harms, P., Newman, D., Gaddis, B., and Fraley, R.C. (2015). Narcissism and Leadership: A Meta-Analytic View of Linear and Nonlinear Relationships. Personnel Psychology, 68: 1-47.
Kets de Vries, M. (1994). The Leadership Mystique. The Academy of Management Executive, 8 (3): 73-92.
Maccoby, M. (2000). Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons. Harvard Business Review, Janurary-February.
Pfeffer, J. (2015). Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Zhang, Y., Waldman, D., Han, Y., and Li, X. (2015). Paradoxical Leader Behaviors in People Management: Antecedents and Consequences. Academy of Management Journal, 56 (2): 538-566.