Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Narcissism and Leadership

Are all narcissistic leaders evil?

With examples such as Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarek in the news, it isn't a surprise that research has shown that many leaders are narcissists. Narcissists have a knack for getting into positions of power and authority (although they likely become MORE narcissistic once they are in power). Moreover, some of these narcissists are effective leaders - some are terribly effective (and evil)....Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, the list goes on and on. But are all narcissistic leaders evil and destructive?

Leadership scholars, Manfred Kets de Vries and Michael Maccoby, say there are "productive narcissists," in government and business. These productive narcissists are confident, assertive, and driven to achieve. The problem, they argue, is to keep these narcissists in check, to keep them from slipping over to the dark side.

Maccoby suggests that the issue with narcissistic leaders is to "manage them" (since in many cases, such as appointed business leaders, we are stuck with them). Narcissistic leaders are relentless in their pursuit of goals, but they can also be ruthless, not caring much about the collateral damage that occurs. They lack empathy, are sensitive to criticism, and self-centered, believing that everyone must think the same way that they do. Maccoby suggests that many narcissistic leaders are effective and productive because they have a trusted "sidekick" who helps manage them and balance them out. He cites Bill Gates & Steve Ballmer at Microsoft; Larry Ellison and COO Ray Lane at Oracle as examples of narcissistic leaders and their "balancing" sidekicks. [Maccoby also believes that narcissistic leaders need to be in therapy and can benefit from executive coaches].

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While some narcissists may be sociopathic - and this may explain the truly evil leaders throughout history - it is more likely that narcissistic leaders become destructive as they gain power. Leadership ethics expert, Terry Price, suggests that leaders may engage in unethical behavior as they gain power simply because they can do it and get away with it. They begin to believe that the moral rules that apply to others, do not really apply to them, and they ignore the collateral damage that occurs in their single-minded pursuit of their goals ("the ends justify the means").

Recently, psychologists Rob Kaiser and Robert Hogan suggest that the way to deal with narcissistic and potentially destructive leaders, at least in the business world, is through selection - identifying these individuals early on, and not allowing them to get into positions of power and authority.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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