Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Are All Leaders Narcissists?

Some leaders are clearly narcissists. Is narcissism good, bad, or neutral?

When we watch mean-spirited, mudslinging politics in national elections (or even at the local level), we may wonder, “What kind of person would subject himself or herself to such, criticism, scrutiny, and still be able to give as good as he or she takes?” Certainly it takes someone with a substantial ego. We are also subjected to some leaders who seem to believe that the rules don’t apply to them. They have affairs, take bribes, and engage in outrageous behavior. Do the huge egos of many top-level leaders mean that they are narcissists?

Narcissism and leadership have been widely studied, and there is some evidence that narcissists succeed in attaining leadership positions. This makes sense, because they are confident, assertive, and focused on self-interests. They know what they want (to be the leader), they believe they are the best person for the job, and they have no doubt that they should be in charge. There is also a connection between narcissism and charisma.

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But is this necessarily a bad thing?

Like many individual differences, narcissism is “curvilinear.” What that means is that too little or too much is not good. Too little narcissism and the leader lacks the confidence (the “chutzpah”) to do what it takes to get elected or appointed. Too much narcissism and the leader runs the risk of going to the dark side – believing that he or she is better than others, above the law, etc.

Leadership expert Michael Maccoby talks about “productive narcissists” He argues that it takes a healthy dose of narcissism for leaders of nations or huge corporations to have great visions and achieve them. He argues that many of the revered leaders of the technological revolution, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, are productive narcissists, and many of the great leaders in history, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, are narcissists. Narcissism helps these leaders get remarkable things done, but it can also be their downfall.

Leaders who are too narcissistic are convinced they are right, sensitive to criticism, and may ignore valid warnings. Because they lack empathy, they are not sensitive to the impact of their behavior on others, and they may act out. Steve Jobs was known to berate and publicly humiliate subordinates. Moreover, leaders with too much narcissism begin to believe that they are above the law. The rules that govern others don’t apply to them, and they may engage in illegal or unethical behavior – and that is the downfall of many narcissistic leaders.

So what is the antidote if a leader’s narcissism gets out of control?

That’s where the followers need to step in. Advisors to a narcissistic leader need to have the courage to stand up to the leader when he or she is about to make a serious misstep. Some narcissistic leaders realize this and seek out a trusted colleague to offer advice, help keep the leader’s “feet on the ground,” and serve as a “balancing device” by sharing the relationship part of the leadership.

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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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