Narcissism and leadership go together like picnics and ants, as we like to say in our new book, The New Science of Narcissism. Leadership is a natural goal for narcissists because it feeds their motivational goals of status, power, and attention. Not all leaders have narcissistic traits, of course, but it’s certainly common to find narcissistic tendencies in positions of power simply because of the benefits that leadership offers to narcissists.
Leadership is a complex topic to tackle in psychology, and researchers typically look at two main aspects—leadership emergence, or the rise to power, and leadership effectiveness, or what happens once someone is in power. You may see how the two are related but different: emergent leaders aren’t necessarily effective, and effective leaders don’t always emerge onto the stage in a flashy, attractive way.
As you can imagine, narcissism is great for emergent leadership. In typical leadership studies at universities, we put students into groups and see how leaders rise to the top. You can also look at this in politics, companies, and social organizations. People decide to step up for many reasons, but with narcissists, the motive is clear—they do it for the ego. They want a higher status, power, and the lifestyle that accompanies a higher position.
At the same time, narcissism isn’t always great for effective leadership. Just because someone rises to power doesn’t mean that they’re going to do well once they get there. Of course, efficacy depends on the eye of the beholder, too. Those who work for narcissistic bosses may see them as self-absorbed tyrants—but they may play an effective and important role in the company in particular ways. In some cases, employees and followers even do well under a narcissistic leader.
Essentially, narcissistic leadership effectiveness comes down to context. When everything is calm and stable, organizations don’t need a leader who will shake things up. When times are chaotic or unstable, though, people want a leader who promises stability and direction. If they don’t know how their life or the economy will fare, they want someone who does—or at least acts like it. The problem with this aspect is that it can lead to detrimental leaders such as Adolf Hitler, who rose to power during Germany’s economic instability after World War I, or extreme leaders like Jim Jones, who promised to fill the spiritual void but took advantage of people and derived power from cult-like behaviors.
Narcissistic leaders often believe that they’ve done their job, too. They’re as “effective” as they said they’d be because they commandeered a chaotic time and made change happen. Followers who believe their leader acts in their best interest are likely to be happy, but those who believe the leader acts in self-interest won’t. We’ve seen this over the years at many levels of the government—from the presidential suite all the way down to the local mayor’s office.
Ultimately, narcissistic leaders come with a double-edged sword, which creates a trade-off between the benefits and risks of having such a leader. They’re often assertive and extraverted, which can charm others and get the job done, but they’re often reactive and antagonistic as well, which can lead to corruption, manipulation, and exploitation to get what they want. In addition, narcissists are great with public performance and taking risks, which can work out well if they’re successful, but it can also be a downfall if those risks are self-serving or lead to corruption.
So what do we do? While trying to choose an effective leader, people may try to preemptively select a non-narcissistic leader, but that can be easier said than done. Education, politics, and businesses are typically set up to allow leaders to self-select and move forward with their goals. Major corporations often use hiring firms to find high-profile, high-visibility candidates, which can lend itself to selecting a narcissistic candidate. The democratic election process can also feel like a popularity contest, where the biggest ego wins. Even this year, candidates have created polarized followings on social media.
Sometimes it feels like our systems are set up to select these narcissistic individuals. Depending on the person and the organization, that’s not always a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a positive either. The key aspect to remember is that leadership positions can draw those with narcissistic motives, and we should keep an eye on that as people rise to power. They may be charming and attractive and do well in the position before they move to the next step—or they may manipulate and take advantage of others. Our best bet is to watch how they act and treat others and then respond accordingly when they look for the next position of power.
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Campbell, W. Keith & Crist, Carolyn. (2020). The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Psychological Challenges of Our Time—And What You Can Do About It. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.