Narcissism and leadership

What is common between business leaders like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Michael Eisner, David Geffen and Richard Branson?

Their grit, ferocity, grandiose leadership, preoccupation with self and insatiated hunger for fame.

In short – they were all narcissists

Derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young man fated to fall in love exclusively with the perfection of his own reflection, the term “narcissism” was first coined by

Havelock Ellis to describe a clinical condition of “perverse” self-love. Freud later suggested that there is a specific narcissistic personality type characterized by outwardly unflappable strength, confidence, and sometimes arrogance.


Diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder as per the American Psychological Association

Many of narcissists’ characteristics are “leaderlike,” such as being socially dominant, extraverted, and having a high self-esteem. Narcissists are likely to emerge as leaders in leaderless group discussions regardless of their individual performance on team tasks and are likely to be singled out as having leadership potential. A key motivation leading narcissists to seek leadership positions in the first place is the desire to garner the power they need to “structure an external world” that supports their grandiose needs and visions.

Despite the pleasant feelings that charisma induces in others, narcissists are not endowed with the best leadership qualities you would wish for. They listen only to the kind of information they seek. They don’t learn easily from others. Narcissists are intensely competitive, self-centered, exploitive and exhibitionist. When they are challenged or perceive competition, they often derogate and undermine anyone, even those closest to them, are perceived as threats. They may believe that they are better at their jobs than others, but their colleagues and managers believe otherwise. They may emerge as leaders however their excessive obsession with self, leads them to undermine the institution and the teams that they lead.

The prevalence of narcissistic leaders in all sectors of society and throughout the world suggests that there must be some positive aspects of narcissistic leaders as well. Notably, as several scholars have observed, the air of supreme confidence and dominance that are hallmarks of narcissism are in some cases exactly what inspires a group of followers to select a narcissist to lead them.

There are clearly situations that call for the kind of great vision and dramatic action likely to be spurred by a narcissistic leader, but are not met by humble one. For instance, Churchill’s rapid fall after World War II highlights that the needs of followers for a “larger-than-life” leader led to them out cast a successful leader.

Although they desire empathy from others, narcissists are not empathetic themselves. However, in times of needed radical change, lack of empathy can actually be a strength. A narcissist finds it easier than most others to buy and sell companies, to close and move facilities, and to lay off employees-decisions that make many people angry or sad.

Narcissistic leaders typically have few regrets.Narcissistic leaders are ruthless in their pursuit of victory. All successful leaders want to win, but narcissists are not restrained by conscience. Their passion to win evolves from both the promise of glory and the fear of extinction. It is a potent brew that energizes organizations, creating a sense of urgency and competitiveness.

Successful narcissists possess “strategic intelligence”. That means they exhibit foresight, are “systems” thinkers who don’t get hung up on details, are good motivators, and most importantly – they partner with people who complement them.

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 and work their way hard up the ladder! She summarizes by saying: “We need leaders who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run.”

In The Narcissism Epidemic, the authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell explain: Narcissists may be good at rising to power within an organization, but their success does not last long. They sell others on an inflated image of what they can do, but they cannot fulfill it. Narcissists are extreme 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!

A study of 111 CEOs in the computer and software industries between 1992 and 2004 reveals the following about highly narcissistic CEOs –

– Spent more on advertising and R&D as a percentage of their sales, ran up costs more and took on more debt

– Tended to do more acquisitions and paid much higher premiums for the companies they bought

– Linked to big performance fluctuations for the companies

– Responsive to social praise which would spur them on to increase their pace of acquisitions and premiums paid

Noted consultant and psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby strongly advocates and extols the virtues of narcissistic leaders. He suggests that today’s hectic and chaotic world necessitates leaders who, rather than playing the role of solid foundation to institutions that change at a glacial pace, are grand visionaries and innovators. These “productive narcissists,” do not try to understand the future, they shape it. He suggests that for narcissistic leaders to be successful, the leader’s narcissism must be constrained by self-knowledge, and by restraining anchors within the organization. With this optimal set of circumstances, productive narcissistic leaders’ personal visions for the future can become reality, bringing forth great innovation and advancement.

Narcissism is a double-edged sword. Too little narcissism and the leader will lack the confidence to do what it takes to get the position or to fulfil the negative responsibilities of the job . Too much narcissism and the leader may believe that he or she is better than others, above the institution and his team. An appropriate balance between having sufficient levels of self-confidence, and not manifesting the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism that involve putting others down can help the narcissists emerge as effective leaders in organizations.


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Nevicka, B., Velden, F. S., De Hoogh, A. H., & Vianen, A. E. (2011). Reality at Odds With Perceptions: Narcissistic Leaders and Group Performance. Psychological Science , 22 (10), 1259-1264.

Owens, B., Wallace, A., & Waldman, D. (2015). Leader Narcissism and Follower Outcomes: The Counterbalancing Effect of Leader Humility. Journal of Applied Psychology , 100 (4), 1203–1213.

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Grijalva, Emily; Harms, Peter D.; Newman, Daniel A.; Gaddis, Blaine H.; and Fraley, R. Chris, “Narcissism and Leadership: A MetaAnalytic Review of Linear and Nonlinear Relationships” (2015). P. D. Harms Publications.

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Chatterjee, Arijit, and Donald C. Hambrick (2011). “Executive personality, capability cues, and risk taking: How narcissistic CEOs react to their successes and stumbles.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 56 (2), 202-237.



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