The 5 signs of narcissistic leaders (and what you can do about them)

Study: Extreme self-belief - and self-entitlement - can manifest as visionary leadership.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 12 May 2020

The popular stereotype of an entrepreneur - full of vision, ego and almost messianic self-belief - is quite a neat fit for the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders definition of narcissistic personality disorder.

Indeed, some studies suggest that as many as five per cent of CEOs are narcissists, which a recently published literature review suggests can have a damaging impact on the organisations they lead. 

Compiling research from 150 separate studies into narcissistic leadership, Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Charles O’Reilly and University of California’s Jennifer Chatman identified the common behaviours that often lead narcissists to the top of organisations and the impact these behaviours can have. 

According to O’Reilly and Chatman, narcissists in the workplace can be:

Grandiose

Narcissists tend to think they are superior to others and have better ideas, possessing a unique insight to solve problems. Furthermore there is an intrinsic belief that they deserve to be recognised as superior by their peers. Studies have shown this is the case even if they are rated as incompetent by those peers. 

Entitled

They generally believe they deserve special treatment or are above the social conventions or rules. They may take credit for others’ achievements or claim they know more than their peers. “One study shows that narcissists continued to over-claim even when they knew the claims were false,” say O’Reilly and Chatman.

Manipulative and lacking integrity

Narcissists have lower levels of empathy, are happy to trample on others to progress their own agenda and are less likely to feel guilt. Studies reveal that in organisations they’re more likely to commit fraud and create corporate cultures that mirror their behaviour. 

Hostile and aggressive

They are more likely to blame others for their mistakes and are less likely to apologise. “They are hypervigilant about threats to their ego,” the researchers write, “so that any lack of admiration or criticism provokes them”. This is commonly expressed through hostility and aggression. 

Excessively self-confident and risk seeking

Extreme confidence in their abilities means that narcissists are likely to favour and push their ideas as correct over those of others. Studies show that often, especially on first impressions, the more confident a person appears, the more competent we believe they are, regardless of their competence. A heightened sense of self-confidence also increases the likelihood of making impulsive, riskier decisions, or failing to change course when a decision isn’t working out.  

Such self-confidence, combined with a desire to succeed and validate their own ego, say O’Reilly and Chatman, can often make narcissists seem like transformative leaders with grand visions, which is one of the primary reasons that narcissists are likely to become the boss. Especially during uncertain times, “a self-assured and decisive leader with a new vision can provide a sense of psychological safety,” write the researchers. 

They make three recommendations as to how companies can mitigate the potentially damaging impact of narcissistic leadership behaviours. 

1. Build a culture that favours teamwork and integrity above individual achievement

“Absent a clear individual performance goal and the chance to demonstrate their superiority, narcissists will be less motivated to participate in these settings and less likely to be rewarded by other employees,” write the researchers. 

2. Avoid hiring them in the first place

Focus on a candidate’s record of developing those around them and tap into their wider network beyond their personal recommendations for candid evidence and testimony of how they have behaved with others. 

3. Manage them out

Conduct regular 360 degree performance reviews and base a “significant” portion of a leader’s compensation on the result. Regular culture assessments can also highlight declining levels of collaboration or motivation left in a narcissistic leader’s wake. 

Read the full study, published in the California Management Review, here.

Image credit: Ted Thai / Contributor via Getty images. 

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