Narcissism Goes to Work: The Double-Edged Sword of Difficult Leaders

July 10, 2018

 

From Alexander the Great to some Silicon Valley CEOs, many powerful leaders throughout history were thought to have been high in “narcissistic” traits. These days, it is common to slap the narcissistic tag on anyone we perceive as arrogant, dominant, or vain, but experts believe that narcissism is a trait that more or less exists in everyone.

 

What is Narcissism

 

Derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who famously fell in love with his own image in a reflecting pool, narcissism is a personality trait characterized by excessive preoccupation with one’s self, vanity, entitlement, risk-taking and grandiosity. It may show itself in the form of extreme arrogance, a constant need for admiration, feelings of superiority, taking credit for the work of others, and manipulating others to achieve one’s own ends.

 

Narcissism in Leadership

 

Despite its potential to annoy us, arrogance in a leader may have the effect of persuading employees and customers to “buy in” to a company’s mission, brand, or product. A study analyzing the life histories of 42 U.S. presidents revealed that narcissistic traits are more prevalent in commanders-in-chief than in the general population. With such qualities as superior leadership on the positive end and unethical behavior on the negative end, narcissism can be viewed as a kind of double-edged sword. The qualities that make a leader strong, charismatic and persuasive, may also make them more likely to abuse their power, be involved in scandals, and refuse feedback from others.

 

Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and contributor to the Harvard Business Review, wrote that “Productive narcissists are not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric.” Maccoby goes on to assert that in times of great industrial or social change, narcissistic leaders have the guts to take charge, to blaze a new trail.

 

But does narcissism in CEOs lead to a more successful company? The answer is not so straightforward. In a fascinating study of computer software CEOs, researchers found that CEO narcissism was not necessarily a predictor of company success. Rather, the trait was associated with extremes in company performance. In other words, narcissistic leaders tend to carry their companies to big wins and big losses. These risk-taking CEO’s are as likely to catapult their companies to success as they are to architect their failure.

 

Elon Musk, the iconoclastic Tesla and SpaceX CEO, once tweeted, “If I am a narcissist (which might be true), at least I am a useful one”. Musk’s statement highlights the importance of these types of leaders. They galvanize their supporters with bold, splashy moves, using as fuel the naysayers who have stood against them and their brand.

 

The "Useful" Narcissistic Leader

 

Because narcissism is a trait that falls along a continuum, it may help to describe when narcissism can be useful. This would involve the charisma, persuasiveness, confidence and risk-taking attitude necessary to successfully run a business, without the more negative aspects of egotism. But this is an overly idealistic view of a person. When you recognize that only about half of businesses survive more than 5 years, you can understand the kind of personality it takes to see a successful company through.

 

The fact is, most people do not want to run a business. It’s easier to be a role-player in an existing operation where you can live a comfortable life and avoid big risks. For most of us, the success of a company or organization does not fall squarely on our shoulders, as it does for a leader or business owner. This means that a certain intrepid, risk-taking spirit is necessary to lead. It is a perilous seesaw, though, as too much confidence could lead to taking uncalculated risks; or, when one is too inflated, they are more prone to ethical slip-ups and other bad decisions, perhaps from a feeling of being “above the law.” As the old saw goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

 

Are We More Narcissistic Than Ever?

 

Recent research has found that millennials (those born between 1977 and 2000) score higher in narcissistic traits than past generations. Entitlement, desire for praise, grandiosity, and an unearned sense of specialness are traits more common in millennials than in older generations. What’s more, today’s business students score higher in narcissistic traits than their college counterparts in disciplines like psychology or education. This is hardly surprising, given that the values held by business students in our universities tend to skew toward the materialistic, whereas students in some other majors may be more concerned with altruism and helping others.
 

Given the increasing presence of narcissistic traits in our society, and specifically in business, it is important to understand them. To be effective in the workplace, and in life, we need some of the positive traits associated with narcissism. Perhaps we could stand to be more assertive, more confident, and more willing to take risks. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to go too far. An inflated sense of our own importance might lead to blunders, to devaluing the feedback of others, and to alienating ourselves amongst our coworkers.
 

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