Do narcissists make good leaders?

Margarita Mayo raises a poignant question in her Harvard Business Review article: If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists? It’s unlikely that people believe narcissists make good leaders. We understand (to use classical language) that narcissism is a vice and humility a virtue. And Mayo says the research confirms that humble leaders are better in the long run, both for a company’s morale and performance. But there is a conundrum because, often, “instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.”

I’ve wondered the same thing myself, particularly when I have been drawn to narcissists.

Why is this? Why are we attracted to narcissists?

Mayo’s hypothesis is that “our psychological states can bias our perceptions of charismatic leaders. High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma. As a result, crises increase not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also our tendency to perceive charisma in the leaders we already follow.” 

There is a tension between a desire to admire and cultivate humility on the one hand, and on the other a common assumption that a persons’ self-confidence — even to the point of arrogance and self-absorption — means they are trustworthy and reliable. I have fallen for this, and seen others go the same way, in the face of the individual with an overwhelming conviction and confidence about their point of view.

May points out that charisma is not necessarily bad. Some humble people are highly charismatic because their humility is a naturally attractive human quality. Charismatic qualities can be powerful traits in a leader. What matters is the underlying convictions, dispositions and motivations of the leader.

And while narcissistic leaders may be able to ascend the executive ranks, it ultimately means little if they are unable to be truly human leaders who actually know themselves and are able to relate well with colleagues, customers, and their own families. 

The humble person recognises their own talents and abilities and has no need to tell others of them. They celebrate the successes of others, and are not concerned when their own role or contribution is overlooked. A self-centred, egotistical CEO is a well-known manifestation of that deficiency of humility that we call hubris or pride. These destructive leaders enhance their standing by standing on others. Have you ever worked for a CEO who makes themselves the centre of attention, takes credit for every success, and absorbs all the emotional energy whenever they enter a room? What impact did their behaviour have on you and those around them?

cultivate humility by recognising others before yourself

I am convinced that humility ultimately makes leaders genuinely easier to follow and for this reason it is the quintessential leadership virtue. It makes you ‘followable’ because your leadership is primarily about others rather than about you. It is a service virtue that places others first.

If you believe that narcissism is an obstacle to true leadership, then it would be wise to cultivate humility. You can do this concretely by taking the time to recognise and compliment the talents, ideas, and initiatives of others. You can give another member of the team an opportunity to highlight everyone’s successes. You can subordinate the desire to receive credit and praise for yourself and seek opportunities to share the accolades with others. And, you can assume responsibility and consequences willingly, rather than minimising or deflecting them. 

Do you think humble charismatic leaders are easier to follow? Is this kind of leadership helpful in times of stress and crisis? What ideas do you have for overcoming narcissism and encouraging humility in leadership?

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