Narcissists As Leaders

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© 2015 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Georgi DiStefano, LCSW

[Excerpt from Chapter 3 of the Axiom award-winning book It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People]

Whether in business, politics, or workgroups, there is a natural tendency to select narcissistic leaders. They are attracted to leadership roles as part of their personalities—their drive for extra respect and extra attention; their belief in their own ideas; their enjoyment of winning contests; their ability to charm and persuade people; and their ability to focus narrowly on a goal (getting chosen as the leader).

People looking for leaders are attracted to narcissists for similar reasons—we like being charmed and persuaded; we enjoy giving them our rapt attention; we like how hard they work to become our leaders; we are attracted to their stories of overcoming past challenges and their visions of future success; and the average person doesn’t want the headaches of being a leader (or competing with a narcissist to get there).


Narcissistic Personality Traits

So far, nothing I have said appears to be a problem. The attraction between narcissistic leaders and group members seems to be part of human nature—and may have helped us organize and survive as humans over thousands of years against endless adversity. It may be that a small dose of narcissism works—it helps people persevere in the face of incredible odds, to be unfazed by strong criticism, to get attention for unpopular (but sometimes good) ideas, and to draw together many different types of people (sometimes millions) around them and their ideas. This may be especially true in times of war and survival.

This also may be true in times of cultural revolutions, such as the popular entrepreneurs who have led incredible breakthroughs resulting in our high-tech lifestyles. These include fascinating figures, such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon)—all with some narcissistic traits, but also successful and effective management styles. News reports and commentators have referred to each of them as narcissists, yet they may just have some narcissistic personality traits. These traits may cause them to be difficult to the people around them, but they may still be manageable and productive. Steve Jobs famously said that he didn’t do market research because people didn’t really know what they wanted—but he did! He was often right.


Narcissistic Personality Disorder

On the other hand, some leaders have narcissistic personality disorder—which means that sooner or later, it will become obvious that they are very dysfunctional. They have many of the same appealing characteristics as those with just narcissistic traits—on the surface. Unfortunately, under the surface, they meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). They are “over the top.” The diagnostic manual for mental health professionals says that a personality disorder is a dysfunctional pattern of behavior that “leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), 5th ed.).

The manual lists several criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder, including a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” preoccupied with “fantasies of unlimited success” and power, belief that he or she is uniquely “special,” “requires excessive admiration,” “has a sense of entitlement,” exploits relationships, “lacks empathy,” and is “envious” and “arrogant.”

Of course, only licensed mental health professionals can make a diagnosis after a thorough assessment for the purpose of assisting a client. You should never tell someone you think he or she is a narcissist, and it would be arrogant of you to do so!


Can You Tell the Difference?

Since narcissists are repeatedly “distressed or impaired” by definition, it would be obvious that they are not good candidates as leaders in an organization. But since it is not easy to tell on the surface the difference between narcissistic traits and disorders, what can you do? One approach is to work to understand and then recognize the key differences between people with personality disorders and those who may just have some traits but are not “impaired.” There are three characteristics that distinguish people with personality disorders (any personality disorder):

  • Lack of self-awareness and self-reflection: They can’t see their part in the problem. This is similar to denial for an alcoholic or addict. They are defensive rather than insightful.
  • Lack of adaptation or change: Even though their behavior is dysfunctional, they don’t change it—because they don’t think they have a problem.
  • They believe the cause of all of their problems is outside of themselves: Since they don’t see their part and they don’t change, they either feel helpless or aggressively try to change other people to help themselves feel better. Those who have a target of blame are the ones we think of as high-conflict people—individuals who generate increasing conflicts as they attack or attempt to eliminate their targets.

If you are trying to decide who to promote into a leadership role, this information suggests that you want to find out how well the candidates accept feedback and whether they have ever tried to change or improve their own behavior. If the person is preoccupied with being right and with criticizing other people’s behavior, then he or she would appear to be less likely to be good leader in most organizations. Especially in today’s world of rapid change and innovation, leaders need to be flexible and fast learners. Those with narcissistic personality disorder need not apply.

But since it’s hard to tell the difference between narcissist personality traits and narcissistic personality disorders on the surface, why not avoid selecting anyone who has narcissistic qualities in the first place? Let’s look at the research.

Narcissists in Work Groups

In their book The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell explain that narcissists in the workplace see themselves as great leaders and that they are more likely than other employees to be chosen as leaders by their peers. But then, over time, their peers see their “negative qualities and stop viewing them as leaders.” Studies have shown that narcissistic managers are generally rated as average for problem-solving skills but below average for “leadership skills, interpersonal skills and integrity.”

Twenge and Campbell add that narcissists in work groups, even when they aren’t the leaders, take credit for the work of others, tend to do less work than others, and blame their co-workers for problems even when they are friends. Even so, they impress those above them in the organization. In effect, narcissists are good at “kissing up” and “kicking down.”

Narcissists as Business Leaders

Popular belief says that the best business leaders have a lot of charisma: They can stand out, grab your attention, and sell you anything. Because they are seen as so outgoing, everyone is happy to follow them and work hard for them. Based on this belief, you would think narcissists make the best business leaders, the best CEOs. However, research tells us exactly the opposite—this belief is wrong!

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses research on what the most effective leaders actually have in common—and it’s that they lack charisma! Many of the best leaders turn out to be those who pushed themselves to work hard—often alone—and to prove that they were good enough for the job. Many were known for their humility and their desire to bring out the best in their managers and employees. In other words, it was not all about them, but all about the business. Cain summarizes the findings: “We need leaders who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run.”

In The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge and Campbell make a similar point: Narcissists may be good at rising to power within an organization, but their success doesn’t last long. They are overconfident and not good team players. They sell others on an inflated image of what they can do, but they can’t fulfill it. In looking at one hundred technology companies, the more narcissistic CEOs had dramatic moments of success, but overall their companies were more volatile and surpassed by companies with less narcissistic CEOs and more steady performances. Narcissists are risk takers and this threatens the value of a company rather than enhancing it. Some narcissists may create a great company—and then crash it!


Bill Eddy headshot

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.


Georgi DiStefano headshot

L. GEORGI DISTEFANO, LCSW  is an award-winning author, international speaker, licensed clinical social worker, and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers San Diego chapter. She has extensive experience in the management of substance abuse programs and employee assistance programs, as well as workplace conflict resolution.

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