Narcissistic people are often leaders, and it is easy to understand why we are somehow drawn to them.
Although the exact number of narcissists in leadership roles is hard to estimate–mostly because very few have their narcissism tested–several studies suggest that narcissists disproportionately occupy the leadership ranks. One study even estimated the narcissism of U.S. presidents and concluded that on some of the key dimensions of narcissism, such as grandiosity, 80% of the overall population would score lower on narcissism than would the average U.S. president.
Other studies show that a person’s narcissism score predicts whether he or she becomes a leader, even after controlling for gender, self-esteem, and major personality traits such as extraversion or curiosity. Along the same lines, in lab experiments with leaderless groups of a few individuals with no previous knowledge of each other, narcissists emerge more frequently as leaders.
Why? First, narcissists have, or are perceived to have, some positive qualities, such as higher levels of creativity. But in reality, narcissistic people are no more creative than others are; they are just better at selling their ideas to others.
What’s more, narcissists spend much more time and energy worrying about how they look. They are masters of impression management, and they seduce people by coming across as attractive and confident. Impression management is a key skill for getting ahead at work, regardless of whether you’re a narcissist or not. But because narcissists put more time and effort into perfecting this skill than does the rest of the world, they naturally end up being better at it.
Perhaps as a result, many organizations regard their narcissistic leaders and employees as central members of their firms. Narcissists, of course, agree with this role, though they often feel more important than their firms. More than once, I have heard executives complain that their talents are not fully appreciated by their organizations while also assuring me that their own personal brand is bigger than their firm’s–a classic narcissistic statement.
Being naturally more status oriented, narcissists value power and achievement more than others do. In fact, the best narcissism tests evaluate a facet called leadership or authority. Narcissism increases with people’s interest in leadership and power. One of the best single statements to evaluate this aspect of narcissism is: “I have a natural talent for influencing people.” What better way can someone find to demonstrate his or her self-perceived superiority than to become a leader or boss?
One thing is certain: if your strategy for attracting people into leadership roles is to offer lucrative compensation packages, bestow fancy titles, and celebrate leadership as the benchmark of individual career success, you will inevitably end up with many narcissists in charge. This result is exacerbated by organizations’ tendency to glorify heroic and visionary leaders. No one can compete with narcissists when it comes to formulating and selling a game-changing, pompous vision.
Sometimes, organizations may think that there is nothing wrong with having narcissists in leadership roles. Quite clearly, narcissists’ air of supreme confidence can inspire and energize followers, and research indicates that a little bit of narcissism is not just common, but also beneficial, among high-performing leaders. But organizations led by narcissists face two problems: First, the benefits of narcissism disappear during difficult and complex times, which every leader should expect. Second, many leaders display much more than a little amount of narcissism. And as you may have figured, they are usually male.
Why men are more likely to be narcissists (sorry, guys, it’s just science)
Just as men display higher levels of confidence and self esteem than women do, men are also more narcissistic–an extreme version of the same phenomenon. For example, the prevalence of clinical narcissism is almost 40% higher in men than in women. A recent meta-analysis of 355 studies and almost half a million individuals aged 8 to 55 years indicated that the gender difference in narcissism is among the highest difference found for any psychological trait.
In particular, research suggests that gender differences in narcissism are mostly driven by two specific aspects for which men score higher than women do. The first, the so-called exploitative entitlement dimension, consistently predicts whether individuals engage in behaviors that harm colleagues and the organization. These behaviors include theft, bullying, harassment, and cyber-loafing (pretending to work while really just surfing the internet).
The second aspect, leadership or authority, explains why certain individuals are much more likely to regard themselves as leader-like and predicts whether leaders are likely to adopt an authoritarian and despotic style when they are in charge.
Why are men more narcissistic? From an evolutionary standpoint, men can be expected to be more narcissistic because sexual selection favors dominance, competition, and status-seeking. From a cultural standpoint, if men have historically occupied more powerful and desirable positions in society, then it is to be expected that, as a result, they are more assertive and entitled.
Meta-analytic studies suggest that the gender differences in narcissism have indeed been declining over the past few decades, largely because women have become more narcissistic, rather than men becoming less so. This change reaffirms the danger of encouraging women to lean in or act more like men to climb the corporate ladder. We are only inviting them to strengthen a problematic leadership model and augment rather than reduce current incompetence rates.
Telling women to act more narcissistically won’t necessarily guarantee them a seat at the table, given the still-present backlash against female leaders who act like narcissists. This behavior violates the social stereotype of women as more communal, tender, and selfless. Urging narcissism is just bad advice all around. Sadly, however, we have still not realized that traditionally feminine prosocial qualities are critical for effective leadership.
Just as problematically, men are rarely rewarded for behaving more humbly, and we have far too much tolerance for male leaders who behave like narcissists. A series of studies by Timothy Judge at the University of Notre Dame and Beth Livingston from Cornell University found that men’s careers tend to suffer when the men are friendly, empathetic, and agreeable.
More specifically, the authors revealed a general negative association between these traits and earnings, implying that “nice guys and gals finish last,” although being nice is more problematic for men. Because the premium for being self-centered is, therefore, bigger for men than for women, the public’s reaction to narcissistic leaders is generally more negative when they are female (e.g., Martha Stewart) than male (e.g., Richard Branson).
Shockingly, though, there is still a payoff for both men and women who behave in undesirable ways.
This has been excerpted with permission from Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It) due from Harvard Business Review on March 12, 2019.