5 signs your successful boss is a narcissist

Narcissism, as a defect and an archetype, is as synonymous with business acumen as it is with criminal pathology. A new study published in The Leadership Quarterly journal provides some insight into why that may be.

With a participant sample comprised of 172 high-ranking CEOs, the authors of the paper determined that some of the same qualities that make a narcissist a social pariah can expedite their success within a company. This correlation survived on five specific characteristics: extraversion, over-confidence, self-esteem, dominance, and authoritarianism.

Each of the CEOs featured in the analysis completed questionnaires regarding the design of the organizations they were employed at before they were administered the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) test. The test contains 40 pairs of statements and can be taken here.

High NPI scores were associated with a 29% higher likelihood of a participant becoming a CEO early in their careers.

“It is widely acknowledged that narcissism is a peculiar characteristic of leaders, such as CEOs. However, the role of narcissism in CEO emergence and appointment has not been studied yet. We overcome this gap by studying whether having a highly narcissistic personality allows individuals to become CEOs sooner,” the authors wrote in the new paper.

“We posit that these individuals have quicker career development, climbing the hierarchical chain faster. We also hypothesize that this relation may be moderated by the firm’s characteristics, comparing family and nonfamily firms. Family firms are the most widespread organizational form of firms around the world, and their peculiarities might affect the appointment of narcissistic CEOs.”

The study’s authors, Paola Rovelli of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and Camilla Curnis of the Politecnico di Milano School of Management found narcissism to contribute to success in both family and non-family firms.

“The key outcome of our research is that narcissistic individuals progress in their careers to the CEO position faster. This occurs independently of the type of firm they are operating in — in our case, family versus nonfamily businesses,” Rovelli and Curnis explained in a media release.

Rovelli and Curnis had access to the participant’s work history and educational background at the start of the research.

“Chief Executive Officers are undoubtedly very influential figures in business. In fact, they are responsible for the strategy of the firms they run, as well as for the management of operations, and mobilization of resources, which ultimately impact financial performance. For these reasons, studying CEOs is relevant – observing them, understanding which of their characteristics trigger their thinking and decision making can help explain key organizational outcomes. Focusing on the personality of these individuals is also of key importance as we all know that narcissists tend to behave differently from less narcissistic individuals.”

The reasoning was basically a riff on the fake it to you make it maxim. Competence likely goes a long way, but those who demonstrate an aura of “I’m hot stuff” seemed to belie an impression of exceptional output–even if the goods weren’t there quite yet. This may lead to early success, but it less often leads to sustained success.

In fact, the authors went on to detail a major liability yielded by the trend. Young self-important leaders have the potential to tank profits and surge anxiety and turnover rates among their team.

Ladders recently covered how important it is for the managerial class to be in tune with the products they market and the employees that produce them.

“Our results are somewhat worrying – in fact, they imply that organizations and boards favor the emergence of narcissistic individuals to key leadership positions. Narcissism is known to be a dark trait, and individuals who are characterized by higher levels of narcissisms are known to procure negative outcomes for the firm, such as financial crime, tax avoidance, less collaborative cultures and more,” the paper continued.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum like any other personality defect. Thus, it is possible to temper the destructive elements of the condition in order to optimize the productive ones.

Self-confidence, ambition, and intuition defined the meteoric success of figures like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, while a perceived superior complex anchors their legacies in controversy.

“Recent literatures has highlighted the distinction between bright and dark narcissism. The first is characterized by traits that are socially desirable such as authority or self-sufficiency, whereas the latter is fundamentally related to a more manipulative and exploitative side of personality. It would be valuable to understand if the emergence of leaders is favored by the bright or dark side of narcissism,” the authors concluded.

“Similarly, it would be important to assess the moderating effect of the economic environment, to see whether narcissistic individuals are more likely to be appointed in periods of economic boom or bust. This is were we aim to go without future research.”