When we talk about narcissism and narcissists, it’s most often to describe the
Former NJ Governor Chris Christie
Source: Michael Vadon, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
interpersonal costs associated with working for, befriending, being related to, or partnering with them. Yet, it’s hard not to notice the number of egocentric, attention-seeking, self-enhancing individuals who rise to prominence in entertainment, politics, business, and in other positions of leadership. In fact, the research shows that not only are narcissists likely to seek leadership positions, but they are also likely to be selected for them. And in many cases, what some would readily identify as narcissistic traits or behaviors, others will understand as a person’s “quirks,” charm, or the well-deserved confidence of the talented, successful, beautiful or others at the top of their game.
For the purposes of this article, I am referring to narcissism as defined by a group of personality traits rather than as a clinical disorder per se (although certainly, a leader can be pathologically narcissistic). As you probably know, narcissists engage in thinking and behaviors that are self-centered and driven by needs for power, admiration, attention and self-enhancement. These traits and behaviors are typically associated with a variety of interpersonal costs. When the person in question is in a position of power over others, a leader’s narcissism can result in decisions that are at odds with the needs and well being of those affected by these decisions.
Yet, despite the liabilities associated with narcissism, narcissists are often quite good at convincing themselves and others that the narcissist is special. Furthermore, at least in the short term, narcissists who also have significant skill, talent or smarts – including notable interpersonal skills – can often mask the liabilities that come with having narcissistic traits. Sometimes, even when we know better, most of us can’t help but find ourselves so charmed, so swayed by their conviction, that we resolve any cognitive dissonance about narcissists and their behaviors by revising our opinions of them. In short, we wind make excuses for inexcusable behavior. A narcissist’s combination of charisma, silver-tongued persuasion, and unshakeable entitlement casts a powerful spell over others, because most of us really want to say, “he can’t be that bad, can he?” We give narcissists the benefit of the doubt that we would want others to give us (and that ironically, that we would likely never receive from the narcissist).
As an example, this week, former NJ governor Chris Christie has been making the TV news rounds to promote his book, “Let Me Finish.” It’s fascinating to watch people like Christie speak. For one, he is remarkably self-referential and yet, still engaging. He also exhibits all of the common traits of the perennially self-absorbed. Christie is charming and charismatic – so much so, that it’s almost easy to forget that his governorship was marked by scandals that made national news. We push aside the recollection that Christie was known for being pugnacious, brash, adversarial, and vengeful. There are numerous video clips of Christie insulting reporters and members of his own constituency. And despite having the lowest favorability rating of any NJ governor (and that’s saying something), to listen to Christie tell it, you’d think he was uniquely effective and popular. Christie is a true believer in his own morality; he absolves himself of any culpability for scandals such as “Bridgegate” and “Beachgate”.
Christie sees himself as a highly effective leader; he stated that the reason he did not win his party’s nomination for president in 2016 is because the country was looking for an outsider – to paraphrase – someone without a “title” in front of their name. Christie seems not only blissfully unaware of his own faults but is remarkably able to charm others away from focusing on them. His unshakable self-confidence and charm may, in fact, convince a good number of people that he is the governor he believes he was. It is possible that Christie will throw his hat in the presidential ring in 2020 or 2024, and who knows – by then, he may do better than his previous poll numbers would lead anyone to expect.
The Mixed Bag of Narcissistic Leadership
Christie’s self-rating of his performance is not surprising given the research on narcissism and leadership; narcissistic leaders tend to rate themselves as more effective than others would rate them. They believe they are special and deserving of high status and power, they take personal credit for successes, and displace blame for failures onto others.
Yet, a recent meta analysis of narcissism and leadership (2017) found that “bright side” narcissistic traits – egotism and self-esteem – were rated more favorably by others than “dark side” traits, such as narcissistic leaders’ tendencies to manipulate others and try manage others’ impressions of them. In addition, narcissistic leaders’ passion for their work and willingness to take risks tended to be viewed favorably.
Furthermore, another study cited in the meta analysis found that in a review of 39 US presidents, those viewed as narcissistic were also deemed more charismatic and received higher performance ratings. The review also found that narcissist’s “visionary boldness” was associated with leadership. Narcissistic leaders were perceived to dominate, rather than affiliate with others, however.
There are certainly perceived positives of narcissistic leaders, among these are being charismatic, being bold and having bold visions, and the willingness to take risks. The meta analysis also found that followers, when feeling uncertain, may prefer narcissistic leaders. Yet, the negatives are many. Narcissistic leaders are perceived (accurately) as lacking concern for others. Leadership narcissism may also hinder productive collaboration among those who work for them. And narcissists’ tendency toward vengefulness is perceived as a negative by those who are in some way governed by them.
Limitations and Remaining Questions
Despite the above, to date, there is no conclusive data as to whether narcissistic leadership is overall more positive or negative. Second, narcissism reflects a group of traits, but it’s unclear to what extent there are important differences between leaders who are more grandiose narcissists versus vulnerable ones. Third, even the nicest of narcissists, by definition, tend to prioritize their own interests. At their worst, narcissist’s personal agendas and needs can put others at risk, or at least mean that the needs of others are neither considered nor met. And then there is the degree to which a leader’s narcissism is reflective of something more pathological, and whether the narcissist also has other dark tetrad traits, such as psychopathy, Machiavellianism, or sadism.
It may be that narcissistic traits, when not extreme, and when balanced by other character strengths, may serve the important function of instilling confidence in and inspiring others. When narcissism is extreme, coupled with other negative personality traits, and when it results in leaders making decisions that put their employees, constituents, or followers at risk or mislead them, or when a leader’s narcissism makes him unable to take responsibility or prioritize others’ needs above his own, then the costs of narcissism will outweigh any benefits. Future research should further explore the potential impact of these issues.