How narcissistic leaders destroy from within


What traits do we look for in our leaders?

Ask someone what distinguishes a forceful leader, in business or politics, and they’re likely to mention self-confidence and charisma. Great leaders, we say, are bold and strong-willed.

They have a vision for creating something new or remaking a company or a country.

They challenge conventional wisdom and are slowed by neither self-doubt nor criticism.

These are the individuals whom corporate boards tend to select as CEOs, especially in times of upheaval, when the status quo is failing.

They’re adept at self-promotion and shine in job interviews. Then, once they’re in power, we find out who they really are.

Sometimes they’re as good as their promise.

But many turn out to be not just confident but arrogant and entitled.

Instead of being bold, they’re merely impulsive. They lack empathy and exploit others without compunction. They ignore expert advice and treat those who differ with contempt and hostility. Above all, they demand personal loyalty. They are, in short, raging narcissists.

Charles A. O’Reilly, the Frank E. Buck Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, studies how the personalities of leaders shape the culture of organizations and the behaviour of those who work in them.

In a paper with Jennifer Chatman of the University of California, Berkeley, he reviews the literature on narcissistic leaders, encompassing more than 150 studies, and draws some sombre and urgent conclusions.

“There are leaders who may be abusive jerks but aren’t really narcissists,” O’Reilly says.

“The distinction is what motivates them. Are they driven to achieve some larger purpose? Do they really want to make the company or the country better, or accomplish some crazy goal like making electric cars mainstream and maybe colonizing Mars along the way? Or is it really all about their own aggrandizement?”

When their self-admiration has some basis in reality, narcissistic leaders can achieve great things; that was certainly the case with Steve Jobs at Apple. But over the past decade, researchers have grown increasingly concerned by the destructive effects of narcissists on organizations. Cautionary tales abound, from Enron to Uber to Theranos.

True narcissists, O’Reilly says, are self-serving and lack integrity.

“They believe they’re superior and thus not subject to the same rules and norms. Studies show they’re more likely to act dishonestly to achieve their ends. They know they’re lying, and it doesn’t bother them. They don’t feel shame.”

They are also often reckless in the pursuit of glory — sometimes successfully, but often with dire consequences.

But even worse, narcissists change the companies or countries they lead, much like bad money drives out good, and those changes can outlast their own tenure, O’Reilly says.

Divergent voices are silenced, flattery and servility are rewarded, and cynicism and apathy corrode any sense of shared purpose in a culture where everyone’s out for themselves. In the extreme, they can destroy the institution itself.

Why do we empower them?

Anyone who was bullied as a kid is familiar with the consoling notion that bullies don’t really believe they’re better than us — they’re “just compensating” for low self-esteem. They present as confident and assertive to mask some inner pain, and we take solace in their secret suffering, maybe feigning pity for their brokenness.

Unfortunately, that generous assessment is not always true.

“That’s the classic case of vulnerable narcissism recognized in psychiatry,” O’Reilly says.

“But in the last decade or so, there’s been an outpouring of research on what’s called grandiose narcissism. These individuals have high self-esteem. They are much more agentic, more extroverted, and really more dangerous. And evidence shows that they’re achieving high positions in organizations, getting promoted and making more money than normal people.”

Such individuals seek positions of power where they can be admired and can demonstrate their superiority. And they tend to gain those posts because they look like prototypical leaders.

“There must be 20 or 30 studies that demonstrate this,” O’Reilly says.

“If you gather a group of strangers and give them a task, those who are more narcissistic are much more likely to be selected as leaders.” Continue reading

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