New study sheds light on why narcissists are so successful at attaining leadership positions

Narcissistic individuals often climb to the top of organizations despite their destructive behavior
by Eric W. Dolan

(Photo credit: Feodora)

New research helps explain why grandiose narcissists often emerge as leaders despite the negative aspects of their personality. The study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, indicates that narcissists often have the “means, motive, and opportunity” to attain leadership positions.

“I study leadership and, especially in Silicon Valley, have been exposed to a set of narcissistic CEOs who are often destructive — even as the press holds them up as great leaders, like Donald Trump and Steve Jobs,” said study author Charles A. O’Reilly, the Frank E. Buck Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“Given that there is overwhelming evidence of their destructive qualities, why do they rise to positions of prominence? My friend and coauthor, Jeff Pfeffer, has long been interested in power and has long argued that power in organizations comes from a willingness to violate norms in the pursuit of influence. We decided to test some of these ideas.”

The study of 699 individuals found that those higher in narcissism were more likely to see organizations as political, were more willing to engage in political action, and were more skilled at doing so.

Narcissistic individuals tended to agree with statements such as “People in this organization attempt to build themselves up by tearing others down”, “Engaging in politics is an attractive means to achieve my personal objectives”, and “I am particularly good at sensing the motivations and hidden agendas of others” more than their less narcissistic counterparts.

In addition, more narcissistic participants also tended to hold higher positions in within their business organization.

The findings provide evidence that “people who rise to positions of power and influence often have high levels of narcissism and succeed at least in part because they are more willing to engage in organizational politics,” O’Reilly told PsyPost.

However, it is still unclear why people continue to tolerate and follow narcissistic leaders “even after they have been shown to be self-interested, manipulative, and abusive,” Reilly said. “See the Republicans in Congress.”

In an article published in California Management Review, Reilly and his colleague outlined how narcissists’ propensity to take outsized risks, exploit others, and ignore the advice of experts could have destructive effects on organizations.

“Narcissists who occupy positions of responsibility in organizations can be dangerous. We need to stop idolizing them and start screening for them,” Reilly explained.

The study, “Why are grandiose narcissists more effective at organizational politics? Means, motive, and opportunity“, was published online on December 9, 2020.