Narcissism and leadership: an intricate relationship

Narcissistic leaders make their leadership effective: they are great visionaries with charisma, and they can inspire a great number of followers. Exaggerated beliefs about their own capabilities and achievements, supreme self-confidence and dominance are in a certain context needed to inspire a group of followers. Leaders are selected with their existing narcissistic personality traits, because their upside potential is enormous. Every top executive has a certain amount of self-love, narcissism, and charisma. Otherwise, they would never have reached the top.

According to the DSM 5 [1], narcissism can  be defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts”. Rijsenbilt developed a model with fifteen objective indicators measuring the degree of CEO narcissism [2]. These indicators are, for example, the amount of remuneration, private use of the company jet, media attention, and the size of the photo of the CEO in the annual report. The study analyzed nearly 1,000 S&P500 CEOs, including several female CEOs who scored just as high on the narcissistic scale as male CEOs. The three impact studies of this research confirmed the psychological perspective of narcissism as a two-edged sword with an upside (productive) and a downside (destructive) potential. A touch of narcissism brings vision, confidence, charisma, purposefulness, and a thirst for recognition. Traits that usually lead to better business results. But the research also points to a downside: too much narcissism goes hand in hand with lower financial results, with decreasing countervailing power and with an increased fraud propensity [3].

The detrimental influence of CEO narcissism can be mitigated by a powerful non-executive board. Raising awareness about the upside and a downside potential of CEO narcissism is essential in order to avoid destructive impact. The results of this research, the empirical model with objective indicators, will be presented in the Erasmus Executive program.

This Executive Program, which has a modular structure, consists of a total of 11 individual modules and a trip to Rome led by Prof. dr. Paul van Geest. This executive program offers a scientific framework from different angles that helps you to test your own leadership style. You will gain insight into the most important and emerging leadership theories and issues from a multidisciplinary and scientific perspective: economics, theology, psychology, and philosophy. Relevant historical insights and the most recent scientific insights and their organizational impact are shared. During the program, in addition to the theoretical part, the focus is on interaction with the participants. There are sufficient moments for inspiration, reflection between teachers and participants and participants themselves. More information is on the Erasmus website.

This article is written by Dr. Antoinette Rijsenbilt, program director of the Dutch Erasmus Executive Program ‘leiderschap vanuit wetenschappelijk perspectief’

[1] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), updated in 2013, is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for the classification of mental disorders.

[2] Rijsenbilt, A. (2011). CEO narcissism: Measurement and impact (No. EPS-2011-238-STR).

[3] Rijsenbilt, A., & Commandeur, H. (2013). Narcissus enters the courtroom: CEO narcissism and fraud. Journal of business ethics, 117(2), 413-429.

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