Narcissists Look Like Good Leaders. But Are They?

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Generally speaking, narcissists tend to do well in life. Which is strange, since we usually look down on traits such as arrogance and inflated self-image. And yet, for all the reasons we hate them, society usually rewards narcissists in one crucial category: leadership. For some reason, even though we claim to see through all the trappings of self-love and big egos, we tend to think that narcissists make good leaders, and in group settings, consistently lift them to positions of power. Apparently, we’ve been duped. While narcissists may look like good leaders, according to a new study by a group of psychology researchers from the University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at leading.

The study is due to be published in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science. Here’s the abstract:

Although they are generally perceived as arrogant and overly dominant, narcissistic individuals are particularly skilled at radiating an image of a prototypically effective leader. As a result, they tend to emerge as leaders in group settings. Despite people’s positive perceptions of narcissists as leaders, it was thus far unknown if and how leaders’ narcissism is related to the actual performance of those they lead. In the current paper we used a hidden profile paradigm to provide evidence for a discord between the positive image of narcissists as leaders and the reality in terms of group performance. We proposed and found that although narcissistic leaders are perceived as effective due to their displays of authority, leaders’ narcissism actually inhibits information exchange between group members and thereby negatively affects group performance. Our findings thus indicate that perceptions and reality can be at odds, which has important practical and theoretical implications.

The study is based on the Hidden Profile paradigm. Researchers recruited 150 people and put them into groups of three. One person was randomly chosen as the group’s leader, and each group was assigned a task: choosing a job candidate. Everyone was told they could contribute advice, but the leader was ultimately responsible for making the decision. Of 45 items of information about the candidate, some were given to all three, and some to only one of the participants.

From the Psychological Science press release:

The experiment was designed so that using only the information all three were privy to, the group would opt for a lesser candidate. Sharing all the information, including what each possessed exclusively, would lead to the best choice. Afterwards, the participants completed questionnaires. The leaders’ questions measured narcissism; the others assessed the leaders’ authority and effectiveness. All checked off the items among the 45 that they knew—indicating how much the group had shared—and rated how well they’d exchanged information. Experimenters tallied the number of shared items, noted the objective quality of the decision, and analyzed these data in relation to the leader’s narcissism.
As expected, the group members rated the most narcissistic leaders as most effective. But they were wrong. In fact, the groups led by the greatest egotists chose the worse candidate for the job. Says [lead researcher Barbara] Nevicka, “The narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on their performance. They inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism.”

This is in a way similar to a study we reported on a few years ago, finding that we prefer confidence over expertise.

HT [Eric M. Jones]

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  1. Mike B says:

    Wow, that was a really well designed experiment.

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  2. Annie says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. ecuamerican says:

    Fantastic read. Reminds me of Darren Rovell, sports “reporter” at MSNBC, and his inane tweets and Rules of Twitter that he often breaks, yet he has a big following who can’t see through his BS.

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  4. Deron says:

    In “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” Clifford Nass made a similar case, but without the nod to narcissism’s being a human failing – he seems to celebrate it being somewhat narcissistic himself.

    Modesty, it seems, is a lousy policy. According to his book, you should never give an evaluation of your weaknesses as people will tend to take you at your word on them. Better to just tell everyone you’re the best…. It’s better to be all hat and no horse, than to be an expert horseman with no hat.

    What I wonder is, is this a sign of the age. Are we simply in a period where narcissism has its own rewards? Or, has this always been the case, a symptom of a world where class structure made nodding to modesty a virtue that only the elites could enjoy as symbol of their birth right?

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      As someone who enjoys classical history I can certainly say that people were complaining about this same phenomenon during the Roman republic and empire (500bc-500ad)

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  5. Imad Qureshi says:

    Quote: “While narcissists may look like good leaders, according to a new study by a group of psychology researchers from the University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at leading.”

    Well this is no news. If you have read “Good to Great” then you already know that good leaders are humble and absolutely not narcissistic.

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  6. Enter your name... says:

    Howard Hughes vs. Noah Dietrich, leader vs. manager. you need both of them to win. apple was in the dark without Steve Jobs despite having its original founders and managers.

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    • Ed B says:

      You are assuming Hughes or Jobs were/are narcissists. You can be a big personality, creative, and highly motivational without being a narcissist. Success of course breeds a degree of self-centeredness if it was not already there. Regardless, at least some of what I have seen on Jobs does not indicate that he is overly authoritarian. You can be highly compelling without being authoritarian and snuffing out the insight and creativity of those around you. Good leaders bring that out more in their people.

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  7. Basil White says:

    I saw this movie: it’s called “Patton.”

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  8. MW says:

    Adolf Hitler really seems the poster boy for this. He thought the world of himself, attracted a fanatical following, and made really bad decisions.

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