Do narcissists make good leaders? The research says: sometimes

No one wants to be called a narcissist.

According to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissists have “a grandiose sense of self-importance”, “a sense of entitlement, “a lack of empathy”, and tend to be exploitative, manipulative and arrogant.

At least, that’s the case for clinical narcissists. But narcissism isn’t all bad. In fact, the research shows a little bit of narcissism does leaders a lot of good.

According to a metastudy of narcissism research, which combines results of existing studies, narcissism can be the backbone that helps leaders resolve difficult decisions. But in other situations, it can lead to dysfunctional workplaces.

“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 Emily Grijalva of the University of Illinois, 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.”

Peter Harms, assistant professor of management in UNL’s College of Business Administration and a co-author of the study, said those with moderate levels of narcissism usually have “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 study examined the findings of dozens other studies on narcissism, to sum up what psychological research has found so far. It has been peer-reviewed and will appear in the next issue of the journal Personnel Psychology.

The metastudy found that narcissists are more likely to be leaders, because they are generally extroverted and make a good first impression. However, there are not uniformly better or worse leaders than non-narcissistic individuals. Instead, their good and bad traits tend to come out depending on the situation.

Harms says the finding that narcissism is a double-edged sword is a common outcome of previous research.

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

For human resource departments and other hiring managers, this poses a problem. Narcissists come across brilliantly in interviews, particularly short ones.

“If you can reduce a leadership contest down to sound bites, you will give them an advantage,” Harms 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.”

Last year, a study by Sydney’s Macquarie Graduate School of Management analysed how frequently Australian corporate chiefs used words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ over ‘we’ and ‘us’ to determine how narcissistic they were.

Faculty Dean Alex Frino told SmartCompanythat the most narcissistic chief executives in the study tended to work in finance.

“I think it tends to attract narcissists, perhaps because of the dynamic nature of the sector,” Frino said.

Materials companies also had a higher-than-average share of narcissists.

Large companies are also more likely to be led by narcissists. Five of the 10 largest companies in Australia (by market capitalisation) were led by narcissists, according to the university’s research.


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