The appeal of narcissistic leaders is also their downfall

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been called a ‘textbook narcissist’. Chris Keane/Reuters

From the sports field to the battlefield, from business to politics, ineffective leaders often shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Perhaps we should be more careful about who we put in charge. Our research has found that your personality – and how narcissistic you are – is linked to how effective you are as a leader. We found that narcissists may appear to be good leaders early on, but they soon fall out of favour.

As we choose the leaders around us, we often think we are making informed choices about who is most effective. But our research suggests that this is not always the case. In fact, we are more likely to select as leaders those people who display narcissistic traits.

Those who score highly in narcissism tests believe they are special people who are superior. They also report high levels of confidence, are focused on themselves at the expense of others, and are vain. These overly positive views of themselves help narcissists to perform very well in situations that offer them an opportunity for personal glory, such as performing under pressure, performing tasks that are difficult, and doing things in the presence of others.

But when they perceive that there is no such opportunity, narcissists withdraw their effort and perform poorly. Because narcissists are so focused on personal glory they can be difficult team members; yet they might make good leaders. Positions of leadership provide an opportunity to gain glory from others and so are likely to be attractive to the narcissist.

The leader ship is sinking

Others have researched and written about the idea of narcissists as leaders, but until now there has been no evidence of whether or not narcissists actually do make effective leaders in the long term.

Not as good as he looks. Looking in mirror via Minerva Studio/www.shutterstock.com

In two studies, we assessed people’s narcissism using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory – a standard narcissism questionnaire used in psychology research. Example items include: “If I ruled the world it would be a much better place” and “I am an extraordinary person”. People were asked to score themselves against these items on a scale of 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating higher levels of narcissism. Our mean scores were just under 14 for both the studies which is consistent with most research using similar participants.

We then asked people to work in small groups, completing weekly tasks for 12 weeks. Examples of tasks included naming all the Team GB medallists at the 2012 London Olympics and identifying the states of the USA on a blank map. In the first study (using 112 first-year students, 71 men and 41 women, working in 24 groups in their first semester at university) we deliberately allocated people to groups so that they would be unlikely to know each other. In the second study, we used individuals who knew each other reasonably well (152 final year students, 96 men and 56 women, working as part of 29 groups) and let them choose their own groups.

Both during and at the end of the 12 weeks, the participants rated each other on their leadership effectiveness. The results were striking. Initially, the people who had scored highest on the narcissism test were rated as highly effective, but as time went on these positive perceptions waned until eventually narcissists were seen as very ineffective leaders. Although we expected narcissists not to last long as leaders, we were amazed by how rapidly they lost favour with their group, and how negatively they were viewed by the end. Over time, the narcissistic leaders’ ships sank.

Are narcissistic leaders doomed to fail?

Our results showed that the group was initially attracted to the narcissist’s charisma and vision, which allowed the narcissists to rise as the “natural” leaders. But over a very short time, narcissistic leaders failed to provide their followers with appropriate levels of challenge or support. This ultimately led to their downfall.

Although our data painted a rather negative picture for narcissists in the long run, it is not all doom and gloom for the narcissistic leader. The challenge for them is to be able to harness their charisma and combine it with other factors such as humility or empathy, which should enable them to be seen as effective leaders over time. An extreme narcissist may not care what others think of them and may be doomed to fail in leadership roles. But there are other narcissism traits that may be more effective and even necessary, in some forms of diplomacy for example – such as narcissistic charm.

Being able to choose between leaders who we “like” in the short term and those who we believe will get the job done and be effective over time is not necessarily an easy task. Dealing with this paradox is vital to be able to ensure effective leadership in the long term.