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The Narcissistic Leader: Is It Good or Bad for Business?

Research suggests that narcissistic leaders may be more successful in certain situations, but also that they can harm their organizations and employees. The debate is whether or not narcissism is a desirable trait in leadership.

Are you a leader who is charming, self-absorbed, and always in search of admiration? Congratulations, you may be a narcissistic leader! But don't worry, it's not just for men. Women can be narcissistic leaders too! And age is just a number, you can be a narcissistic leader at any age. In fact, introverts and extroverts alike can both be narcissistic leaders. All jokes aside, narcissistic leadership is real and can be both a positive and a negative influence in the workplace. While narcissistic leaders are often charismatic and confident, they can also be manipulative and exploitative. One interesting concept to explore is the relationship between narcissism and the impostor phenomenon/syndrome. The impostor phenomenon is the feeling of being a fraud or not deserving of one's success, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Research has found a positive correlation between the impostor phenomenon and narcissism, suggesting that those who score higher on measures of narcissism are more likely to experience the impostor phenomenon (Campbell, Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002). On the surface, this may seem counterintuitive. How can someone who thinks so highly of themselves feel like a fraud? However, it makes sense when we consider that narcissistic individuals may feel pressure to maintain their image of superiority, and any perceived failure or criticism can threaten that image. This can lead to feelings of self-doubt and a fear of being "found out" as a fraud. But what about the impact of narcissistic leadership on others in the workplace? Research has found that narcissistic leaders can have both positive and negative effects on their followers (Nevicka, De Hoogh, van Vianen, Beersma, & McIlwain, 2011). On the positive side, narcissistic leaders can inspire their followers and create a sense of excitement and energy around their vision. On the negative side, however, narcissistic leaders can also be abusive and exploitative, creating a toxic work environment that can lead to burnout and decreased job satisfaction. It's important to note that not all leaders who exhibit narcissistic traits are inherently bad. In fact, some level of narcissism can be beneficial for leaders in certain contexts. For example, research has found that narcissistic leaders can be effective in crisis situations, where a bold and confident leader is needed to make quick decisions (Maccoby, 2004). However, it's important to recognize the potential negative consequences of narcissistic leadership and take steps to mitigate those effects. One approach is to focus on developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Leaders who are aware of their own narcissistic tendencies can work to control them and avoid the negative effects on their followers.

So, what can organizations do to ensure that their leaders are not crossing the line into harmful levels of narcissism? One solution is to provide leadership development programs that offer the space to gain this self-awareness. This way, leaders can learn to balance their confidence and assertiveness with humility and empathy for others.

Another solution is to create a culture that values collaboration, feedback, and accountability. When leaders are held accountable for their actions and encouraged to seek feedback from others, they are less likely to become entrenched in their own egos and more likely to be open to new ideas and perspectives.

It's also important for organizations to recognize the difference between healthy self-confidence and unhealthy narcissism. Leaders who are truly confident in their abilities are willing to admit their mistakes, seek feedback, and learn from others. Those who are narcissistic, on the other hand, are often threatened by criticism and may lash out or engage in unethical behavior to protect their image.

In conclusion, while some levels of narcissism may be beneficial in terms of inspiring followers and achieving success, it's important for organizations to be aware of the potential risks and take steps to prevent harmful levels of narcissism in their leaders. By developing empathy, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness, and creating a culture that values collaboration, feedback, and accountability, organizations can cultivate a healthy balance of confidence and humility in their leaders.

Further reading, Additional references:

  • Nevicka, B., Ten Velden, F. S., B. De Hoogh, A. H., & M. Van Vianen, A. E. (2011). Reality at Odds With Perceptions. Psychological Science. or here

  • Brunell, A. B., Gentry, W. A., Campbell, W. K., Hoffman, B. J., Kuhnert, K. W., & DeMarree, K. G. (2008). Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

  • Campbell, W. K., Hoffman, B. J., Campbell, S. M., & Marchisio, G. (2011). Narcissism in organizational contexts. Human Resource Management Review, 21(4), 268-284.

  • Grijalva, E., Harms, P. D., Newman, D. A., Gaddis, B. H., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Narcissism and leadership: A meta‐analytic review of linear and nonlinear relationships. Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 1–47.

  • Rose, P. (2002). The happy and unhappy faces of narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(3), 379–392.

  • Gauglitz, I.K., Schyns, B., Fehn, T. et al. The Dark Side of Leader Narcissism: The Relationship Between Leaders’ Narcissistic Rivalry and Abusive Supervision. J Bus Ethics (2022).

  • Grijalva, E., Harms, P. D., Newman, D. A., Gaddis, B. H., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Narcissism and leadership: A meta‐analytic review of linear and nonlinear relationships. Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 1–47.

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