Are narcissists good leaders?

Do narcissists make more effective leaders, or do they generally have poorer organizational outcomes?

Narcissist bosses are common. Ask most employees whether they have ever had a narcissist boss and you will hear stories of individuals who have taken credit for other people’s work, made decisions without consulting anybody, and talk about themselves non-stop.

Many scholars have argued convincingly that the confidence that typically accompanies narcissism is a key component for leader success.

Professor Emily Grijalva of the University of Illinois and colleagues carried out a study to determine whether narcissists make good leaders.

Their research findings have been published in the journal Personnel Psychology.

Narcissism not associated with leaders’ success

The research team gathered and analyzed data from existing literature as well as past and current research. They found that even though narcissists are more likely to end up in leadership positions, there was no link between narcissism and leaders’ success.

They did find that bosses at the extreme ends of narcissism tended to be poorer leaders, i.e. those with extremely low or extremely high levels of narcissism.

Grijalva said:

“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. 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.”

Co-author, Peter Harms, an assistant professor of Management at the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explained that individuals with moderate levels of narcissism generally manage to achieve “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.”

Prof. Harms, who has carried out extensive research on psychological features and how they impact on the workplace, said the finding that narcissism has its pros and cons is nothing new.

Harms said:

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

He adds that people in charge of taking on or promoting leaders for their organization should be careful:

“Narcissists are great in interview situations – if you can reduce a leadership contest down to sound bites, you will give them an advantage. 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.”

Narcissists may be ideal leaders in chaotic situations

While organizations should be careful not to create hiring and promotion practices that slant too much towards narcissists’ strengths, they should also remember that candidates with very low levels of narcissism tend to be poor leaders.

Further research is required to determine whether narcissists might be ideal for some specific leadership situations, Grijalva said. In the midst of chaos narcissists, with their persuasiveness and willingness to take risks, may make strong leaders, “but those traits could create problems in a more stable environment.”

A study published in The Journal of Management Accounting Research found that narcissistic CEOs tend to perform better than their non-narcissistic counterparts as far as earnings per share and share prices are concerned.