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Wisdom and Narcissism: What Makes a Good Leader?

Study shows that of five facets of wisdom, only one makes a good leader.

Narcissists make seductive leaders: they love themselves and so of course you should love them, too. But despite narcissists' magnetism and outward-facing confidence that frequently land them in positions of power, we all know that narcissists make bad leaders…right? And, of course, we all know that wise people make good leaders…right? A study in press at Leadership & Organizational Development Journal challenges the popular understanding of both. And it turns out the answer to the influences of narcissism and wisdom on leadership is more nuanced than you might expect.

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Let's start with a curveball about narcissism, where the science has been mixed. For example, this famous study of Major League Baseball CEOs shows that a CEO's narcissism is negatively related to the team's winning percentage and to fan attendance—in other words, it's terrible for leadership! But on the other hand, this second equally famous study compared the narcissism of U.S. Presidents to their "charismatic leadership" and measures of performance and found that the greater a president's narcissism, the greater his influence. (By the way, raters independently agreed that FDR and Lyndon Johnson were the most narcissistic leaders of the pre-Bush era.)

So which is it? Does narcissism make for a transformational leader or a self-involved paper tiger?

Put the question on hold. We'll get there. For now, let's take a peek at this new study in JODJ. The study by researchers at the University of Queensland went inside a high school to interview and test 77 employees—not just for their own wisdom, narcissism and leadership, but their opinions about their colleagues.

Here's a neat test you can try at home: the researchers asked teachers, administrators and other school staff to think aloud for 12 minutes about the following question, pulled from a test called the Berlin paradigm: "In reflecting over their lives, people sometimes realize that they have not achieved what they once planned to achieve. What should one/they do and consider?" Independent raters scored these recorder answers and subjects got a wisdom score from 1-7. (By the way, scores ranged from only 2.00 to 3.47 on the 7-point scale—wisdom is difficult!)

Then they had subjects self-report their narcissism by answering a 16-item quiz based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. And finally subjects' transformational leadership was scored by three colleagues.

Narcissism, wisdom, and leadership: how did they stack up?

Let's start with a robust, clean conclusion: the authors write that, "Narcissism had a significant and negative effect on transformational leadership." But then wisdom wasn't nearly as clean. When the researchers looked inside wisdom they found that of five widely-recognized components of wisdom, only one was associated with strong leadership and one component of wisdom actually made for less effective leaders. Read that again: there's something inside wisdom that makes a bad leader.

Here's another game you can try—even if you don't know exactly what the following five components of wisdom mean, can you pick the one that led to good leadership and the one that blocked it: Rich factual knowledge about life, Rich procedural knowledge about life, Lifespan contextualism, relativism of values and life priorities, and recognition and management of uncertainty.

Here (finally) are some answers:

  • While knowing that societal, interpersonal and personal values and priorities shift is a component of wisdom, this wishy-washy relativism makes for a bad leader. Rather, it seems that a little bit of absolutist idealism is needed to pull people along by your example (perhaps consider Gandhi…and also Hitler). The wise flip-flop; strong leaders do not.
  • It doesn't matter how much you know, or how much you understand, or how fully you appreciate your own and others' histories and possibilities (that perplexing "lifespan contextualism" factor)—these things make you wise, but they don't help or hurt your ability to lead.
  • The only piece of wisdom that makes for a transformational leader is the ability to recognize and manage uncertainty.

It seems that rather than knowing anything or being able to do anything or understanding life's changing complexities, what we want from a leader is simply the ability to courageously march into the unknown and make it safe for the rest of us to follow.

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Want to stay current on the latest interesting research in wisdom, intelligence, expertise and the other ways our brain snaps, crackles and pops? Join me on Facebook.

Forthcoming Book: BEYOND IQ: Scientific Tools for Training Problem Solving, Intuition, Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, and More (Three Rivers Press, July 22, 2014)

Garth Sundem is the author of the books Brain Trust, Brain Candy, and The Geeks' Guide to World Domination.

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