Why Do Narcissists Make Such Poor Leaders?

April 20, 2020

You would most likely agree that a key component of leadership is the ability to inspire others through one’s own personal charismatic appeal. During times of crisis, such as during the current COVID19 pandemic, you particularly need to be able to trust those who offer public guidelines, reassurances, and updates. It might be the head of your organization who sends out a video message, a national or regional politician, or a local religious official.

You want to believe the people in charge who deliver their words with great confidence. However, what if these are people you’ve come to conclude from their past behavior that they derive their self-assurance from the grandiose form of narcissism? Does it make you wonder whether they have your best interests in mind or does it seem that they just want to grab the limelight?

To be sure, a key component of leadership is the ability to inspire others so that they will follow and this can require a healthy dose of positive self-regard. Equally important to leadership is the ability to withstand criticism if not the public humiliation of losing an election. Indeed, people who run for their nation’s highest offices may famously fail on their first try or two.

Those who seek promotions in the workplace, similarly, may be turned down a few times before they receive the advancement they crave. You might have even experienced the pain of losing the confidence of those you want to lead if you’ve ever lost a committee election in a volunteer organization. As much as you’d like to try again, though, you can’t muster up the self-confidence you need to give it another go. It makes you realize just what it takes for people to repeatedly put themselves on the line.

Unfortunately, the very qualities that can contribute both to charismatic crowd-pleasing and the thick skin needed to survive psychologically after a loss can require a certain degree of narcissistic grandiosity. Johannes Gutenberg – Universität’s Nina Wirtz and Thomas Rigatti (2020), studying workplace relationships, note that leaders high in grandiosity may be able to rise to the top of their organizations but at a cost to those they lead of becoming emotionally exhausted and turned off by their work under leaders who exploit and take advantage of them..

As the German authors note, “on the one hand, narcissists are perceived as charismatic and visionary, emerge more easily as leaders, possess public persuasiveness, and demonstrate good crisis management” … but “on the other hand, narcissism has been related to low levels of integrity and contextual, interpersonal performance, as well as workplace deviance.” Within the workplace their “sense of entitlement, lack of interest in personal relationships and strong emotional reactivity are likely to cause interpersonal difficulties” (p. 1). Furthermore, for employees high in the vulnerable form of narcissism, exposure to such leaders can be particularly stressful and emotionally exhausting.

Wirtz and Regatti suggest, then, that it’s necessary to look at the intersection in leader-follower relationships between the grandiose and vulnerable forms of narcissism. To test what they call this “holistic approach,” the authors administered measures of both types of narcissism, work engagement, and emotional exhaustion, or burnout, on a sample of 235 leaders across 71 workplace teams in several German industries. The findings revealed that the workers most susceptible to the self-aggrandizing leadership style of grandiose narcissists were those who themselves were high in vulnerable narcissism, full of self-doubts and perceived personal weakness.

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