Think twice about who you chose as leader: narcissists are initially appealing but don’t deliver in the long term

From events such as the Rugby World Cup to party politics, coaches, captains and party leaders are in the spotlight.

Leadership is an important aspect of everyday life as well, and we all choose leaders or at least, work with leaders.  For example, we know who is “boss” in the workplace, who is “captain” at Sunday footie, and who at home is “in charge”.

Although we often formally or informally select leaders and think that we are making informed choices on who is most effective, new research at from Bangor University’s Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP) in the Journal of Personality shows that we are more likely to select leaders who display narcissistic traits. People high in narcissism are individuals whose main aim is to build and maintain their inflated, overly-positive self-image; an aim that is often achieved at the expense of others.

The team’s research suggests that we only perceive highly narcissistic people as effective leaders when we don’t know them very well. For example, you might have selected a narcissistic leader in school, in your sport team or in your workplace without much knowledge of that person, and you are now required to work under his or her leadership. Things may have been fine at the beginning – but what happens over time?

This latest research shows that while narcissistic leaders are “love at first sight” for many of us, these positive perceptions of narcissistic leaders only last for a short honeymoon period. Over time, the narcissistic leader’s ship sinks. Yes, you fell for the charm but there’s no substantive leadership behind the charm.

Chin Wei Ong, one of the researchers explains: “In the research, followers were initially attracted to narcissistic leaders’ charisma and vision, and these factors were responsible for narcissists’ initial rise as leaders. In other words, groups of people initially preferred the narcissist over others as their leader. However, a combination of narcissistic leaders’ continued focus on themselves at the expense of others and their failure to challenge, or support, for example,  encouraging followers to think of problems in new ways  or providing individualized support for each follower led to narcissists’ ineffectiveness as leaders over time.

Does this mean that narcissistic leaders are always doomed to fail? Dr. Ross Roberts, another of the researchers, suggests that the jury is still out on this one. “Narcissists are charismatic and charming but they fail to give enough attention to their followers. The challenge for narcissistic leaders is to be able to harness their charisma and combine it with other factors such as an ability to be empathic, which should enable them to be seen as effective leaders across 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 milder forms of narcissism that may be more effective”. The researchers are now conducting studies in this area to try and understand what factors might increase narcissists’ effectiveness as leaders.

Although not all leaders are narcissistic, their personalities could influence how effective they are as leaders over time.  Perhaps this is something to consider next time you are asked to choose a leader?

Full article in Journal of Personality

Publication date: 21 October 2015