Lead on, Narcissus!

It is an uncomfortable reality of our society, and many others, that we choose our leaders based on qualities that in reality may not necessarily make them good leaders at all. Does a democracy where government is meant to be “for the people” really want to be led by someone who is all about their own power? Yet we are drawn to those narcissistic people as leaders precisely because they are charismatic and draw our gaze. However, a new study has highlighted that narcissists are not the best leaders at all.

Narcissists are people who need to be at the centre of things and to have constant revalidation of their own worth. They crave admiration even more than they desire to be liked. To cultivate this admiration and validation they will create themselves into a persona that draws attention and is pleasing. So deep are they in their own projected persona that they often believe it themselves. Media moghul Ted Turner made the classic narcissistic observation, “If only I had a little humility, I’d be perfect.”

Narcissists desire to be noticed and their extreme self-confidence can make them very attractive and charming. With a flock of admiring friends and colleagues and protected by a blissful high regard for themselves and their powers, narcissists can float through life feeling pretty good about things. As the joke goes, if Fred is our typical narcissist, “The difference between Fred and God is that God doesn’t think he is Fred”. With this kind of satisfied and competent aura around them, and a desire to be elevated, it is not surprising that narcissists are often elected as leaders. Unfortunately though, they are exactly the wrong people for the job.

To test this researchers gathered 150 participants and divided them into groups of three. One person in each group was randomly assigned to be the leader. All were told that they could contribute advice but the leader was responsible for making the decision. They then undertook the task as a group of choosing a candidate to fill a job position.

As part of the experimental design each person was given slightly different information about the candidates. The information was designed in such a way that if only the information available to everybody was used then a lesser candidate would be chosen. However, sharing all of the information, including what each person had exclusively, would lead to the best choice.

After the task had been completed the participants completed questionnaires. Those given to the leaders measured narcissism. Those given to the “followers” assessed the leaders’ authority and effectiveness. All of the questionnaires checked off how much of the information they had been given had been shared.

The researchers counted the number of shared information items, objectively rated the quality of the group decision, and compared these results to the leader’s level of narcissism.

Not surprisingly, the group members rated the most narcissistic leaders as being the most effective. However, in reality the groups who were led by the greatest narcissists chose the worse candidates for the job. The inference is that the self-centredness and authoritarianism of the narcissistic leaders inhibited communication and had a negative effect on performance.

In times of crisis, narcissists may make good leaders as their strength and dominance can create certainty and reduce stress. However, in the everyday life of an organisation or country, where sharing information and knowledge is important to making good decisions, the narcissistic leader will have a negative effect. Good, effective leaders foster communication by asking questions and summarising the conversation, something that narcissists are too self-absorbed to do.

By their nature, narcissists will often by picked as leaders, but it is precisely their self-consumed nature that makes them ill-fitted for leadership. Perhaps we re-work Groucho Marx’ comment that he “would not join any club who would have him as a member” into, “we should not elect anyone as leader who wants to lead”.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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