What is it that attracts us to narcissistic leaders? And shouldn’t ‘narcissistic leader’ be an oxymoron? I wrote previously about the challenges of working with narcissistic leaders and suggested some ways of counteracting their worst excesses. But the reality is we continue to select narcissists for leadership roles. Why are we so seduced by them and believe they are well-suited for leadership roles?  Why do we talk so much about ‘good’ leaders, and then hire ‘bad’ ones? And why do we keep doing it when we ought to know better? Last time the spotlight was on the narcissist, this time, it’s on us.

Previous research shows that narcissism is a strong predictor of leadership emergence, but it is an inconsistent predictor of leadership effectiveness. The greatest benefits of narcissists are evident in emerging situations: this reverses over time as situations and relationships endure.

The benefits of narcissism are seen primarily in emerging relationships, where people don’t know each other well. In groups of strangers or as relationships are forming, narcissists tend to be seen by others as highly likeable, relationships are initially satisfying, and narcissists are more likely than others to be identified as leadership material. They are also more likely to be seen as good leaders when organizations experience instability.

This flips as the relationship continues, and as we have greater exposure to the narcissist’s behaviour we begin to like them less. Over time they are viewed as overconfident, aggressive, volatile destroyers of the common good. There’s more, but I’ve covered that ground previously.

Narcissists also experience the costs of their behaviour on relationships over time, although the negatives are mixed with some positives. Because of the benefits they enjoy in new or emerging relationships, such as perceptions of success and likeability, narcissists will continually seek out and prefer new relationships.

Now, it turns out that not all narcissists are the same. As counter-intuitive as this may sound, leaders may be both narcissistic and humble, and it is this combination that is associated with perceptions of leader effectiveness, in particular, follower job engagement and job performance.

Both narcissism and humility are relational, although, yes, in quite different ways. Humility means admitting mistakes and limitations, acknowledging the strengths and contributions of others and modeling teachability. Bradley, Wallace & Waldman’s (2015) research found that humility and narcissism could be displayed by the same leader, and when they were, humility helped temper the negative, and highlight the positive, aspects of narcissism. Their research is helpful in understanding that leaders are never just one thing, but instead display an array of complex and sometimes contradictory behaviours.

The profile of the humble narcissist is of one who balances admitting mistakes with having a bold vision, acknowledging others with a drive for personal success, and balancing mentoring with a strong desire to lead. The more toxic characteristics, such as exploiting others, having a sense of superiority, being self-absorbed and demanding admiration, are counteracted.

The researchers use Steve Jobs as an example to show how these seemingly contradictory behaviours play out. After Jobs was fired from Apple, he appeared to learn to temper his narcissism. During his second tenure at Apple he was perceived as more open to the ideas of others, more willing to acknowledge his past mistakes and able to both express appreciation to and retain talented executives. Still narcissistic, but leavened by humility.

So narcissists can be good for leadership:

  • if they’re only required for a short period of time, when organizational conditions are uncertain, or
  • when they are also humble.

That changes the challenge from how to avoid hiring them, to how to avoid hiring the ones without humility.

When we’re hiring or promoting leaders, or when we’re choosing a leader to work for, we need to watch out for narcissistic behaviours (too good to be true?), notice when we are being seduced by them as may happen in initial meetings, be wary of the consequences of making hiring mistakes (it only gets worse), and test further, rigorously:

  • search for a pattern of long term, enduring relationships, rather than short term experiences, and speak with people about performance and character over time;
  • seek feedback on people engagement and performance of the teams they’ve led;
  • listen to yourself and understand your own needs – are you being seduced, are you looking for the hero leader who will solve all your problems?
  • and don’t rely on your gut, do a formal personality assessment that measures narcissism.

Beware the seduction and avoid the destruction.