Why Are There So Many Narcissistic Leaders?

Having the right leader in charge is critical to the success of the organization. Only when employees benefit from the skills, attitude, and work of the leader, you have the right person in the job. The right leader will boost the motivation and performance of the whole team. The wrong leader will drag them down.

Psychologist Robert Freed Bales ran a study to find out what happens when putting a group of people with the same status together and let them solve a problem. In his experiments, the lack of group structure changed very quickly, often within minutes, and a hierarchy automatically developed. It was often the proactivity and willingness to speak up that signaled influence and power. The group automatically granted to such individuals the leadership role and higher position in the hierarchy. They sort of implicitly approved that this person is a boss they are willing to follow.

This automatic raise of hierarchies satisfies the human need for order and predictability. Unfortunately, the moment there is a hierarchy, there is also a chance of uneven distribution of resources and rewards. Those higher in the hierarchy have a bigger opportunity to impact decisions regardless of whether their ideas are better or not.

The flatter the organization, the better it is. It leads to equal opportunity for everyone and often to better decisions as ideas are judged based on merit rather than on positional power.

How do we pick our leaders?

Good leadership matters. Curiously enough, bad, incompetent, or downright toxic and abusive managers are one of the most frequently mentioned reasons why employees quit their jobs. There is an incredible amount of time and money spent on leadership development, and yet, it doesn’t seem to bring the desired results. When you combine it with the gender inequality in leadership positions, you need to start asking yourself whether we are looking at leadership the right way. How do we select our leaders? Do we focus on the right traits and skills? Do we truly give equal opportunities? Do we choose the best of the best for management roles? The answer to all these questions is obvious. No!

It is often those who speak up first, who are the loudest, charismatic, and appear the most confident that get promoted to managerial roles or elected as our political representatives. Unfortunately, narcissism and overconfidence are not the right criteria to select our leaders. On the contrary.

The conversation about gender equality in leadership is an interesting one. Companies set quotas on how many women should be in leadership. Women are being encouraged to lean in, be more aggressive, work on their image, and generally behave like men who already are in leadership roles. Essentially, they are being asked to become overconfident narcissists like the incompetent men who often hold the managerial positions today. That is just plain wrong.

Yes, this approach helps with the problem of gender imbalance, but it doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem. The problem is the wrong selection criteria used to identify leadership potential. If companies focused on adapting the selection criteria and the hiring processes to select the best candidates, and not the most overconfident people, the gender imbalance would disappear. The chances are that there would be more women in leadership than men.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes, many companies use selection criteria such as charisma and confidence to pick their managers. Unfortunately, overconfidence usually leads to bad leadership. It is just too easy for incompetent people to get to managerial positions. Therefore there are not enough open slots for the competent ones. Organizations would do good not to allow incompetent individuals to get to the position of power. In fact, that needs to be the first step.

Charisma, confidence, and competence

The problem is deep-rooted in our psyche. Put a group of people who don’t know each other together and ask them to solve a problem. Within minutes some sort of hierarchy will emerge. And on top of it will be the most charismatic, overconfident, and vocal person. And the group accepts that person as a leader. And yet, there is no way in these couple of minutes for anyone to assess the actual competence accurately. At this stage, it is all about appearances. We tend to follow those who appear to have the answers, not those who actually have the answers. The problem is that the traits that helped the person get to the top of the hierarchy will now work against them. Charisma, overconfidence, and verbal prowess will make them ineffective leaders. People like this are often unable to listen, take a step back, empower others, admit their mistakes, and generally work for the common good of the group.

There is very little correlation between confidence and competence. Competence is about how good you are at something. Confidence is about how good you believe you are at something. Paradoxically, the better we are at something, the more we understand the topic, the less likely we are to be confident. We know that there is so much we don’t know about the topic. It is often those who know the least who are overconfident. Their lack of competence and their ego doesn’t allow them to admit that they may not have all the answers.

It feels like being overconfident gives you an advantage. It does, but not in actual performance. It gives you an edge over those less confident in terms of image. You simply seem to be more capable, so you get more opportunities. However, enough research shows that the best performers are those who are self-aware and see the reality for what it is.

Narcissists and psychopaths often excel at image building. They are masters of making a good impression. They spend a lot of time and energy worrying about how they look and how they come across. They are able to persuade others of their brilliance by appearing confident and always on top of their game. Whether you like it or not, image matters. The way others see us has a direct impact on how far and how fast we move through the ranks and raise in the organization.

Narcissism and genders

A meta-analysis of 355 studies covering more than 470,000 people showed that narcissism is the one trait where the gender difference is the most prominent. Since narcissism is much more prominent in men than in women, you also end up having a mostly male management team. As some studies suggest, the gap between men and women when it comes to narcissism is decreasing. Unfortunately, it is women who are becoming more narcissistic, rather than men becoming less. Thus the toxic leadership model keeps thriving even when women climb the corporate ladder.

A study by Timothy Judge and Beth Livingston showed that men are being punished by slower career opportunities when they are friendly, agreeable, or empathetic. Nice men don’t finish last, but they are far behind the disagreeable men. The pushy overconfidence creates a much better first impression when it comes to exuding strength and vision. So it is not only women who are often skipped for promotions for being too nice, but men too. Even though they still fare better than women.

Focus on what matters

To prevent having incompetent narcissists running your company, focus on what matters. If you attract the so-called top talent by fancy titles and oversized compensation packages, you end up with a management team that cares about these things over anything else. You end up with narcissists. They will charm their way to your company and get promoted. They will squeeze out those who are genuinely competent and care about the organization and the team.

Have your selection criteria tailored to the culture you want to create. Make sure you remove bias out of the interview process as much as possible. Don’t let first impressions guide your choices. Focus on hiring people who will enjoy working with the team you have, who see it as their mission to help others grow and succeed. Hire so-called servant leaders who are willing to do what is right for the team and the company, even if it hurts them personally. Hire leaders who will join the company for the challenge of getting it to the next level. Hire those who are thoughtful, inclusive, and who care about other human beings.


What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that by selecting the criteria we can get better gender balance in leadership? Do you think there are too many narcissists in managerial roles? What would you do to improve the type of people we put to managerial roles? What would you do to get more women in leadership roles?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

Categories: Diversity, Leadership

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