Ask a Scientist: Do narcissists make good leaders?
By: Katherine Hill
Edited by: Sienna Schaeffer, Isabella Armour
Welcome to the exciting column where you send us the science and science-adjacent questions that you’ve always been too afraid to ask and we find experts who can answer them.
For absolutely no reason, do narcissists make good leaders? Definitely not asking because of anything specific happening in the news lately.
For absolutely no reason? It is a little early in this column’s run to start making enemies out of any world leaders, so I’m going to take you at your word and keep this answer general, rather than applying it to any specific people and/or international crises waiting to happen.
I’ve been told that the answer to any psychology question should always start with “It depends.” In this case, the answer actually starts with Dr. Michael Miller, a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Minnesota and an expert in personality disorders. Personality disorders are a specific subset of mental health conditions that includes disorders like borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism. Personality disorders are usually characterized by personality traits that, although common in the general population, are cranked up to such a high degree in people with the disorder that it can be difficult for them to function in everyday life.
Narcissistic personality disorder, which is the formal diagnosis that corresponds with the more colloquial term “narcissism”, is no different from other personality disorders. It is specifically characterized by an inflated sense of grandiosity or self-importance, entitlement, and a lack of empathy. Most people have all of these characteristics to some extent, but to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, you need to have them to an extreme degree. As an important aside, throughout this article I will use the term “narcissist” to refer to people who are known to have demonstrated high levels of narcissistic traits, even if they were never officially diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
So do narcissists make good leaders? Apparently, it depends.
Dr. Miller said that in the past, most experts assumed that narcissists would make terrible leaders, “which didn’t really make sense because if you look back historically, there were a lot of very influential narcissists in history who kind of came along at the right time.” These influential narcissists include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others.*
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, recent research has painted a more complex picture of narcissistic leaders than experts initially believed. In fact, most narcissists have a couple of very important things going for them in the leadership department. First, narcissists are good at coming up with a clear vision for what they want. Dr. Miller mentioned that the World War II general George S. Patton “was a really good example. He had a vision. ‘I want to get to Berlin before anybody else does. That’s my goal.’ So he would literally push his troops, push all of his supplies further than anyone could actually reasonably do.”
A vision is a good start, but it’s not enough. Maybe my vision is to create new breed of miniature elephants that can be sold as housepets. As amazing as this idea is, I am realistic enough about my own abilities and the available technology to know that I will probably never have my own pint-sized Dumbo. The narcissist, on the other hand, would say “I see your tiny elephants and raise you tiny mammoths that will be on sale in a store near you this December.”
This confidence comes from one of the key features of narcissism: an extreme sense of arrogance and self-aggrandizement. That doesn’t exactly sound like a selling point, but it does mean that narcissists have an extreme confidence in their own ability to accomplish spectacular goals, which makes them more likely to actually attempt to reach that goal in the real world. Every once in a while, they succeed.
Gandhi is a good example of how this mindset can come in handy. In the 1920s-40s, an Indian man should never have been able to go up against the British government and win the independence of almost 400 million people. But Gandhi believed he could, and somehow he did.
Gandhi did not free the Indian subcontinent by himself, of course. Millions of Indians rallied around him to fight for their freedom. This brings us to another key feature of narcissists: they tend to be very charismatic. Narcissists love recognition and adoration. As such, they often develop strong rhetorical skills that they can use to draw people in. When deployed correctly, these skills can allow narcissists to rally people around a common cause. According to Dr. Miller, “They can get people on board and usually push people past what they would normally do and that’s where you see the success.”
It turns out that these qualities make narcissists particularly well suited to lead during specific periods of time. As Dr. Miller said, “Narcissists are really good at times of change, upheaval, and crisis. They can step in and they can make bold statements. They can give a vision and they can sum up the support of everyone else to move in a specific direction.”
The crisis can be worldwide, like Roosevelt during World War II, or it can be smaller, like a business that needs to move in a new direction. A famous example of the latter scenario is the car company Volvo. During the early 1990s, Volvo CEO Pehr Gyllenhammar pushed the company to innovate its manufacturing process and car design, which led to changes in the automotive industry as a whole.
Narcissists seem to be less well suited for times of relative stability or peace. In these times, the focus is often on maintaining the status quo and there is no need for a grand vision or to rally people around a cause. When World War II ended, there was no longer a need for someone like Roosevelt to give radio addresses and comfort to the nation, because the nation no longer had a reason to be afraid. Dr. Miller told me that for this reason, “especially for the narcissistic leaders, a lot of times they sort of fall away after the crisis is over.”
So far, narcissists are looking pretty good. But before you rush off to hire a narcissist as your new hedge fund manager**, it’s important to note that narcissistic leaders can have a dark side. Narcissists tend to lack empathy, to be hypersensitive, to be quick to anger, and to be amoral. Dr. Miller explained that to narcissists, “you are an object… You are not a person, you are a tool that I use to get something.”
Not surprisingly, these characteristics mean that narcissists generally make choices that are best for them, which might not be what’s best for everyone else. In one extreme case, Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of members of his own party in 1979 after they supported a political union with Syria that would have greatly reduced Hussein’s powers.
Narcissists also tend to be inflexible, irrational, and paranoid. In general, they also are not particularly interested in listening to others. “They’re going to tell everybody what it is that they want…. They don’t want to learn from other people and they don’t want to teach. They want to indoctrinate and direct what you do,” Dr. Miller said.
As you might imagine, this attitude can make for a really fun workplace. Subordinates are often forced to fight each other for their boss’ approval, which can quickly devolve into a cutthroat and dysfunctional environment.
Arrogance and grandiosity, which can be the narcissistic leader’s greatest strengths, can also be their greatest weakness. Although these traits can give narcissists the confidence to go forward with bold new ideas, they can also leave narcissists so convinced of their own superiority and intelligence that they become divorced from reality. When this happens, they begin to think that they can accomplish things that really are impossible or, in some cases, are just terrible ideas.
Unfortunately, the more success that a narcissist has, the more emboldened they become. Not known for their listening skills even at the best of times, they start to completely ignore the advice of the people around them. The extreme level of grandiosity and arrogance that many narcissistic leaders begin to exhibit was probably best expressed by a chairman at Oracle. When describing Oracle CEO and (in)famous narcissist Larry Ellison, the chairman said “The only difference between God and Larry is that God doesn’t think he’s Larry”.
As narcissists become more isolated and grandiose, they begin to take enormous risks, which can often lead to self-inflicted wounds. Remember the CEO of Volvo? After he helped to revolutionize car manufacturing, he insisted on forcing through a merger with the French car company Renault, despite the fact that it was almost universally loathed by both managers and rank and file workers. Unsurprisingly, the deal fell apart and Gyllenhammar was forced to leave the company.
Once in awhile, a narcissist is able to sidestep the pitfalls that come with arrogance and grandiosity with the help of someone more obsessive and detail-oriented who can act as a sidekick. The sidekick understands and believes in the narcissist’s vision. They can keep the day-to-day operations moving and focus on the small steps necessary to move toward that vision. Most importantly, the sidekick can keep the narcissist grounded in reality and tell them if something that they want is impossible.
Because narcissists are often too arrogant to take anyone’s advice, these arrangements tend to be rare. When partnerships do occur though, they can be incredibly successful. One of the most successful examples of these pairings in recent history comes in the form of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft. Dr. Miller explained that “Bill Gates can go off and he can save Africa and he can also come up with really great ideas for how to run his computer company and… all these kinds of things because he has someone like Steve Palmer, who is much more obsessive sort of sidekick. He sees the vision, understands it, and can run the show without [Bill Gates].”
So after all this, should you choose a narcissist as your next CEO/world leader/captain of your intramural curling team? This column promises only science, not advice, so I’m not going to make a decision for you. I will reiterate that narcissism can be a pretty mixed bag; you get your Gandhis and your Bill Gates’s, but you also get your Larry Ellisons and your Saddam Husseins. In the end, you have to decide for yourself who you want as a leader.
Thank you to Dr. Miller for his help with answering this question.
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*I know that I’m already breaking my rule about not naming names, but these people are all dead and as such are unlikely to fight back. Maybe not the noblest of sentiments, but definitely a practical one.
**Because that’s definitely the audience for this column.