Narcissistic leaders: Why do they rise to the top?

Why do so many narcissistics become leaders? Researchers at Stanford University have some ideas

Narcissistic leaders: Why do they rise to the top?

“The problem is us,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, in talking about why narcissists often become leaders, despite their toxicity.

“It’s relatively easy to identify them, it's relatively easy to see what they're doing, but we are attracted to them,” says the Thomas D. Dee II professor of organizational behaviour in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University in California.

“We like people who make grand claims and claim that they're going to save the world or ‘Make America great again.’”

Companies often hire these people who have grand visions, boldness and “enormous amounts of self-confidence,” he says.

“The problem is not the narcissist; the problem is the people who select a narcissist.”

In trying to understand why leaders with narcissistic tendencies become leaders, Pfeffer and his colleague Charles O’Reilly say one reason could be that the defining characteristics of grandiose narcissism (grandiosity, self-confidence, entitlement and a willingness to exploit others for one’s own self-interest) make them more effective organizational politicians.

In carrying out three surveys involving 700 participants, they found that people higher in narcissism: are more likely to see organizations in political terms; are more willing to engage in organizational politics; and are more skilled political actors.

“They are often very good at politics,” says O’Reilly, Frank E. Buck professor of management in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and co-author of the study “Why are Grandiose Narcissists More Effective at Organizational Politics? Means, Motive and Opportunity.”

“They see organizations as a political kind of win-lose. If you win something, rather than my feeling good about the fact that you won something, [it's] ‘Why not me?’ So they see the world in very competitive terms and they play that game. And they're just better at it than many others.”

The prototypical leader

Many narcissists have the characteristics of a prototypical leader, he says.

“They're not just visionary, they're grandiose; they're not just self-confident but they believe they're personally superior; they're not just strong willed but they believe that they know better than the rest and so they ignore the advice of others; they're not just charming but they're exploitative and they have low empathy; they're not just innovative, they're impulsive and risk seeking; and they're not just challenging, they're hostile when they are challenged.”

But there is a growing recognition that many bold, innovative leaders are also narcissists who seek out positions of authority to demonstrate their brilliance, says O’Reilly.

“When you have somebody who doesn't listen, who believes that they know more and doesn’t listen to experts, the likelihood of [them] making a bad decision goes up dramatically in a complex world where an individual can't know everything,” he says. “They value loyalty over expertise and we end up with people like Donald Trump or Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos or Adam Newman at WeWork ― and they can destroy these organizations.”

You can see it in larger-than-life leaders such as Steve Jobs of Apple or Jack Welch of General Electric, says Pfeffer.

“[Narcissists] tend to preside over companies that are more likely to get into legal trouble and they create toxic organizational cultures.”

While there are positives to being a narcissist, these people are also pretty good at eliminating their competition, he says.

“They tend not to take advice very much and they tend to get rid of the people who challenge them. All you need to do is look at Trump ― I mean, anybody who disagreed with him was soon gone, regardless of their competence, skill or reputation.”

Potential solutions

So, what’s the solution to the narcissist problem?

“I'm not sure it's actually solvable, to tell you the truth ― I'm not sure that there's an answer,” says Pfeffer. “Because people are attracted to displays of power and to displays of grandiosity.”

However, one answer could be to surround narcissists with competent people and limit their authority.

“Don't overly invest power and control in one individual, and then the risk of that individual going off the rails is mitigated,” he says.

Narcissists can be very charming, so they're good at interviewing. They can “charm” a board and they’re often good at managing their bosses, says O’Reilly. So, it’s recommended employers first talk to people who have worked for that individual.

“Narcissists, because they are so competitive and so manipulative, they can fake it for a little while ― they can't fake it for a long time. So, if you talk to people who have worked for narcissists, then you can get an accurate picture of who they really are,” he says.

Plus, narcissists are more likely to succeed at organizations that value heroes and individual achievement, says O’Reilly.

“Organizations that value teamwork and humility are not places where narcissists are likely to either choose or to do very well in… and they're probably not likely to stay very long.”  

Latest stories