How narcissistic leaders destroy from within
“Narcissists are self-promoting and often shine in job interviews,” says Charles A. O’Reilly. This means that the depth of their pathology is only revealed when they gain strength. | Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez
What traits do we look for in our leaders? Ask someone what sets a powerful leader apart, in business or politics, and they’ll likely mention self-confidence and charisma. Great leaders, we say, are bold and determined. They have a vision to create something new or to remake a business or a country. They challenge preconceived ideas and are not slowed down by doubt or criticism.
These are the people boards tend to select as CEOs, especially in times of upheaval when the status quo is failing. They are self-promoting and shine in job interviews. Then, once they are in power, we find out who they really are.
Sometimes they’re as good as they promise. But many turn out not only to be confident, but also arrogant and empowered. Instead of being daring, they are just impulsive. They lack empathy and exploit others without scruples. They ignore expert advice and treat those who differ with contempt and hostility. Above all, they demand personal loyalty. They are, in short, rampant narcissists.
Charles A. O’Reilly, Frank E. Buck Professor of Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, studies how the personality of leaders shapes the culture of organizations and the behavior of those who work in them. In a document with Jennifer chatman at the University of California at Berkeley, he reviews the literature on narcissistic leaders, spanning over 150 studies, and draws gloomy and urgent conclusions.
“There are leaders who can be abusive fools but who are not really narcissists,” says O’Reilly. “The distinction is what motivates them. Are they driven to achieve a larger goal? Do they really want to improve the business or the country, or accomplish some crazy goal like generalizing electric cars and maybe colonizing Mars along the way? Or is it really their own expansion? “
When their self-admiration has some basis in reality, narcissistic leaders can accomplish great things; this was certainly the case with Steve Jobs at Apple. But over the past decade, researchers have grown increasingly concerned about the destructive effects of narcissists on organizations. Warning stories abound, from Enron to Uber to Theranos.
True narcissists, says O’Reilly, are selfish and lack integrity. “They believe they are superior and are therefore not subject to the same rules and standards. Studies show that they are more likely to act dishonestly to achieve their ends. They know they are lying and they don’t mind. They are not ashamed. They are also often reckless in the pursuit of fame – sometimes with success, but often with dire consequences.
But even worse, narcissists change the companies or countries they run, just like bad money drives out good, and those changes can outlast their own tenure, O’Reilly says. Dissenting voices are silenced, flattery and servility are rewarded, and cynicism and apathy erode any sense of common purpose in a culture where everyone fights for themselves. In the extreme, they can destroy the institution itself.
Why do we hold them accountable?
Anyone who was bullied as a child knows the comforting idea that bullies don’t to believe they’re better than us – they “just make up for” low self-esteem. They present themselves as confident and assertive to mask some inner pain, and we comfort each other in their secret suffering, perhaps feigning pity for their breaking down.
Unfortunately, this generous assessment is not always true.
“This is the classic case of vulnerable narcissism recognized in psychiatry, ”says O’Reilly. “But in the last decade or so, there has been a wave of research into what is called grandiose narcissism. These people have high self-esteem. They are much more agent, more outgoing, and much more dangerous. And the evidence shows that they hold high positions in organizations, get promoted, and earn more money than normal people.
These individuals seek positions of power where they can be admired and can demonstrate their superiority. And they tend to win these positions because they look like prototypical leaders. “There must be 20 or 30 studies showing that,” says O’Reilly. “If you get a group of strangers together and give them a task, those who are more narcissistic are much more likely to be chosen as leaders.”
You end up with these individualistic cultures without teamwork and with low integrity. We’ve documented this in a bunch of tech companies in Silicon Valley.
Charles A. O’Reilly
O’Reilly thinks we may have a particular tendency to choose narcissistic leaders in times of turmoil. “Over the past decades, large companies like automakers and banks have been threatened by technological disruption. So you can imagine that in times of anxiety people are looking for a hero, a confident person who says, “I have a solution. ” are confident in such moments.
“By the way,” he adds, “I haven’t researched this, but I think venture capitalists love these people. For their business model, which consists of investing in 10 companies hoping that one will pay off big, that makes sense. If I’m a VC and see one startup run by an introverted engineer and another run by someone who says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to change the word, and if you don’t get it then you’ re a bozo ‘ – I’ll go for the visionary spiel. In a way, it is an investment model based on greatness.
Count the damage
Because narcissists are fundamentally self-motivated, lack empathy, and are less constrained by ethical standards, they can cause enormous damage once in power and can even endanger the organizations they run, says O’Reilly.
Field studies have shown that narcissistic CEOs are more likely to engage in fraud and other types of white collar crime, manipulate income, and seek aggressive tax evasion. And a 2013 study of U.S. presidents found that those who scored higher on the narcissism scale were more likely to abuse their authority (not to mention, on a personal level, their marriage vows).
With UC Berkeley’s Bernadette Doerr, O’Reilly recently published the results of three experiments showing that narcissistic people in general have lower levels of integrity – meaning their words and actions don’t line up – and that they are more likely to lie, cheat, and steal in order to prove their special status.
Rising to a position of power only reinforces these tendencies, says O’Reilly. “Being elected or appointed to a position validates their sense of entitlement. At the same time, even without narcissism, the power uninhibits – it encourages people to indulge their worst instincts – so now you have the two working together.
And when narcissists achieve some success, it reinforces their belief that they know better than others, so that they feel even more justified in ignoring expert advice and trusting their own instincts. “Success shakes their grip on reality,” writes O’Reilly in his review.
Unsurprisingly, studies also show that narcissists’ beliefs in their superiority are based on scarce evidence, validated neither by objective measures of intelligence or competence nor by performance reviews of peers or subordinates. A recent article on corporate decision-making found that great leadership was associated with greater risk-taking, but not better financial returns.
As a result, narcissists often feel like they aren’t getting the admiration and credit they deserve, and they can appear pathologically plagued with resentment. It can take the form of irritation, aggression, messy public rants, and abuse of subordinates. Narcissistic CEOs often involve their companies in costly litigation. In the narcissist’s worldview, other human beings must be either sidekicks or enemies.
But the most serious danger posed by such leaders is that their malignant influence guides the behavior and expectations of others – and ultimately shapes the culture of the organization or political regime in their image. Business studies show that selfish and unethical behavior at the top spills over into the organization and becomes legitimized, or at least normalized.
“Once in power, narcissists consolidate their position by sacking anyone who challenges them,” says O’Reilly. In their place rises a scourge of toads, opportunists and facilitators equally guided by self-interest and short of scruples. “So you end up with these individualistic cultures with no teamwork and low integrity. We’ve documented this in a bunch of tech companies in Silicon Valley.
When you join a new business, you determine how you need to behave in order to fit in, he says. “If you see that the path to the top requires you to plot, suck, and withhold information, then the choice is yours: you can do the same or not, in which case you will be excluded and possibly eliminated. “
It highlights the struggles of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi to turn the company around after its founding CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to leave. “Once you create these cultures, it’s very difficult to change them. There are long term consequences. “
Follow the trail
O’Reilly’s hope is that by learning together the lessons of what is now a large body of narcissistic leadership research, we can learn to better distinguish between true transformational leaders and look-alikes who exploit our our hopes and fears to gain Power.
If you’re evaluating candidates for high office, you really need to look beyond self-presentation, he says. “Too often when boards select CEOs, especially outside CEOs, they do so through interviews. But the interviews play to the strength of a narcissist. And you can’t just watch the performances, because they can simulate the performances ”- gleefully taking credit for other people’s work and even falsifying the results.
“What would really be a lot more enlightening would be to go talk to the people who have worked for and with them in the past. You need to get data from people who have seen that person operate. But that’s usually not what happens.
It’s up to the recruiting teams and the voters who select the leaders, says O’Reilly, to do the proper background checks: “We are not helpless. The information is there. “
And as the research shows, the stakes are high – because, as O’Reilly says, “These people aren’t going to change.”