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Are Narcissistic Children More Likely to Become Leaders?

The link between narcissism and leadership in children is examined.

Key points

  • Narcissism has been linked to some positive outcomes—such as leadership attainment—in addition to negative ones.
  • Children who are more narcissistic have a greater chance of being chosen as leaders, research suggests.
  • Narcissistic children’s performance as leaders does not appear to be superior to the performance of other children.
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What is narcissism? Narcissism is a puzzling phenomenon, often associated with both very negative and very positive characteristics.

On the one hand, narcissistic people are egotistical and arrogant, feel entitled, and lack empathy. Furthermore, they can be very envious and jealous, exploitative, and prone to hostility and aggression (“narcissistic rage”) in reaction to even minor criticism.

Indeed, some scholars have argued that the core of narcissism is antagonism. Antagonism can be defined as the opposite of agreeableness. According to the DSM-5, antagonistic behaviors “put the individual at odds with other people.” These antagonistic characteristics may include grandiosity and self-importance, entitlement, manipulativeness, callousness, deceitfulness, hostility, lack of empathy, and general non-compliance.

On the other hand, sometimes narcissistic people are viewed positively. Some narcissists are loved and admired because they often come across as self-confident, charming, and charismatic. And narcissists tend to become popular (though they may not remain popular).

In addition, many narcissists are accomplished and successful. For instance, research suggests rich individuals, successful artists, and higher-paid CEOs are more likely to be narcissistic. Even U.S. presidents, research indicates, “exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population,” and “presidents’ grandiose narcissism has been rising over time.”

Let us examine the link between narcissism and leadership in more detail. For instance, when does this relationship emerge? In adulthood, adolescence, or as early as childhood? And if children high in narcissism (compared to those low in narcissism) are more likely to become leaders, do they also function better as leaders? That is what a recent study by Brummelman et al., published in the March issue of Psychological Science, examined.

Narcissism and leadership: sample and methods

Participants were 107 children in the Netherlands (97 percent Dutch; 54 percent girls; 7-14 years of age). One child in each group was randomly assigned to be the leader. The groups were asked to complete a hidden-profile task. In these tasks, the correct decision cannot be made unless members share what information each has.

The task assigned was choosing the best candidate (out of three) for a police officer job. Each child was provided with limited information regarding the police officer candidates. So, while each child had access to some information about the candidates, only through discussion could children access all the unshared information. If they successfully exchanged information, they would logically conclude Candidate 3 was best for the job. Why? Because Candidate 3 had more positive attributes (e.g., being quick to remember faces and details) than negative attributes (e.g., being lazy and weak), compared to other candidates.

As for measures used, narcissism was evaluated using the 10-item Childhood Narcissism Scale—with items like, “Kids like me deserve something extra,” and “I am a very special person.” Leadership emergence was determined by asking children to nominate true leaders among classmates. Note, a leader was defined as “someone who decides what a group does, someone who’s the boss.” Also assessed were perceived leader authority, leader effectiveness, and future leader preference.

To determine the actual functioning of leaders in groups, two graduate students watched video recordings of group discussions and the children’s leadership behaviors. They then coded behaviors related to different aspects of leadership, such as directing, monitoring, planning, and problem-solving.

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Narcissism and leadership: The results

Relatively narcissistic children were more likely to emerge as true leaders, according to peer ratings. In addition, when given leadership positions, they had a more favorable view of themselves as leaders.

Nevertheless, their actual functioning as leaders did not differ significantly from non-narcissistic leaders. Specifically, the more narcissistic leaders did not differ from non-narcissistic leaders in “how much leadership behavior they displayed, how positively they were perceived by their followers, or how their group performed.”

So, an important question is this: Why would narcissistic children be more likely to emerge as leaders?

One potential explanation involves self-deception. When people have less self-doubt, they find it easier to sell themselves or their vision. In this case, narcissistic children, believing themselves to be special and better than everybody else, probably found it easy to persuade others of their own excellence as leaders.

Another explanation involves the association between narcissism and agency. In a way, narcissism may be defined as a blend of antagonistic and agentic personality traits—being confident, assertive, decisive, and ambitious.

Agency is linked with the successful pursuit of personal goals and achievement of desired outcomes. In the present investigation, agentic traits mediated the link between narcissism and narcissists’ perceptions of their functioning as leaders. Therefore, “agentic traits helped explain why children with higher narcissism levels perceived themselves more favorably as leaders.” This, the authors note, is “an important step toward developing a leadership identity.”

Facebook image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

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