Strategy

Leadership: Big ego, big office

Narcissism pays well, but beware: it can be incredibly detrimental, too.

What separates corporate drones from the boss? It might not be a bigger office, but an oversized sense of self-worth. Narcissism and leadership, a new study confirms, go hand in hand.

Narcissists quickly take charge in leaderless situations, and others defer to them, perhaps impressed by their rhetoric and opinions, according to researchers at the University of Georgia and Ohio State University who studied undergraduate students and managers in an executive MBA program. “These people want to be leaders, they emerge as leaders and people tend to see them as leaders,” says Brian Hoffman, assistant professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of Georgia.

It sounds like everyone wins: narcissists want power, and peers think they deserve it — but there’s a catch. The same overconfidence that propels people’s careers can also make them “potentially destructive” leaders, states the study, which will appear in December’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Narcissists are prone to making risky decisions, committing white-collar crime and having poor interpersonal skills and low integrity, says Hoffman.

One of the study’s exercises — a shipwreck group-survival scenario — also showed that narcissists were no more effective at leading than others. The researchers recommend keeping narcissism’s negative aspects in check by administering personality assessments on leadership candidates, and performing good governance and independent auditing.

Can a non-narcissist ever become a great leader? Possibly, says Amy Brunell, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State. She names one: Gandhi.