Is narcissism a good leadership trait?

It is not uncommon for leaders to be narcissists – their talent for self-promotion and innate confidence means they are not afraid to throw their hat in the ring for powerful positions.

However, are narcissists reaching senior roles because they are inherently good leaders? Or does natural charisma cover some of their negative traits?

A recent study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) found that narcissism seems to have a limited impact on leadership skills. Instead, extremely narcissistic people tend to be poor leaders.

The academic institution examined previously unanalysed Hogan data, which revealed correlations between very high and low levels of narcissism and job performance.

Emily Grijalva, lead author of the study, said the findings clearly showed that narcissism is best in moderation.

“With too little, a leader can be viewed as insecure or hesitant, but if you’re too high on narcissism, you can be exploitative or tyrannical,” she explained.

Positions of power

The research supports a similar study that was conducted in 2008 by Ohio State University (OSU), which revealed there is limited correlation between narcissism and good leadership.

According to the university, narcissists are typically self-centred, overconfident in their abilities and lack empathy.

One study involved placing people into groups of four and provided them with a scenario where they had to imagine being shipwrecked on an island with no contact with civilisation.

They could pick 15 salvageable items from the wreck to bring ashore to help them survive until help arrived.

The results revealed narcissists quickly take control of a leaderless group, ruling discussions and making decisions. They often saw themselves as the leader and were also considered the leader by other team members.

However, when each list of items was analysed by a survival expert, teams led by narcissists performed no better than other groups.

Assistant Professor of Psychology at OSU Amy Brunell said the outcome is hardly a surprise.

“[Narcissists] like power, they are egotistical, and they are usually charming and extroverted. But the problem is, they don’t necessarily make better leaders,” she said.

Spotting image over substance

Clearly, some narcissists are benefiting from leadership development opportunities largely because of their ability to talk the talk.

Peter Harms, assistant professor of management in UNL’s College of Business Administration, claimed narcissists typically make a very good impression when you first meet them.

“Narcissists are great in interview situations – if you can reduce a leadership contest down to sound bites, you will give them an advantage,” he stated.

Despite this, the charisma will eventually wear off and colleagues tend to become aware that their overly confident colleagues aren’t quite as good as they think they are.

“At the personal level, they can be jerks. At the strategic level, they can take huge gambles because they’re so confident they’re right. They’re either making a fortune or they’re going broke,” he stated.

According to UNL researchers, the study should act as a warning to employers. They may need to examine their current hiring and leadership development practices to ensure they don’t unfairly play to the strengths of narcissists.

However, they also said people with very low levels of narcissism may not necessarily make better candidates either.

Can narcissists be reformed?

One of the key problems of narcissism is a lack of empathy, which could lead to poor treatment of employees in the workplace from those in senior positions.

New research from the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton could help organisations to overcome this issue and encourage narcissists to empathise with colleagues.

The institutions split people into two groups: ‘low narcissists’ and ‘high narcissists’. The participants were read a vignette describing a relationship break-up to gauge their reactions.

As expected, narcissists showed little sympathy for the subject, even when the scenario was fairly severe – for example, when the individual suffered depression due to the split.

The groups were then shown a video of someone experiencing domestic violence, but this time they were instructed to take the perspective of the victim. Specifically, they were prompted to imagine how the victim felt.

Narcissists reported significantly higher levels of empathy in these circumstances, with physiological evidence – such as increased heart rate – supporting this.

Lead researcher Erica Hepper said: “If we encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend’s point of view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate or sympathetic way.”

The results could have significant ramifications for the business world, implying narcissistic leaders could be developed into more sympathetic, team-focused members of staff.

Having an egotistical person in charge can quickly create a toxic workplace environment, leading to poor productivity, high employee turnover and – in worst-case scenarios – accusations of bullying or negligence.

If your organisation has self-centred individuals impacting the workplace, perhaps consider coaching or mediation sessions to improve their performance and enhance staff morale.