A narcissist is someone who has an inflated perception of oneself, and will give exaggerated accounts of own capabilities, past accomplishments, and ability to predict and change future events. Narcissists have, to put it colloquially, huge self-esteem. Clearly this suggests leadership as an appealing career path for narcissists. After all, leaders are looked up to, which confirms what the world should be like for narcissists, and leaders can accomplish great deeds, which narcissists are confident they can. That does not mean that CEOs of firms are narcissists in general. CEOs typically are not given the firm by dad; they are career managers who get their position based on a track record of success. Some degree of randomness is involved in who wins, but it also helps to have a realistic view of oneself and the world, and narcissists fall short on that dimension.
Still, there are enough CEO narcissists around that it is possible to do research on them, and thanks to an article by Arijit Chatterjee and Donald Hambrick in Administrative Science Quarterly, we know how they lead. The key question to pose is how CEOs learn from experience – do they become more cautious by low performance, and bolder by high performance, as one might expect and want a firm to do? After all, adjusting actions to feedback is an astute way to behave both for individuals and firms.
Intuition suggests that narcissists don’t respond much to feedback because they are already convinced of their own greatness, so they will ignore evidence to the contrary. The research showed that this intuition is only half right, and this is where things get interesting. It is true that narcissists are unresponsive to indicators of their own performance – objective indicators, the kind that one should learn from. A narcissist CEO will completely ignore recent stock returns when calibrating the level of risky investments; a non-narcissist CEO will pay close attention and make more risky investments when they indicate success.
But that does not mean that narcissists ignore feedback. The reason is that narcissists are not as confident as they seem. In fact, they can be very insecure, and as a result they crave applause and lash out at criticism. This means that social feedback – praise – has a big effect on the behavior of narcissists. In fact, the opposite relation holds there. A non-narcissist CEO will nearly ignore media praise when adjusting risky investment, while a narcissist will make strong increases in risky strategic investment when praised a lot.
So is it OK to be led by a narcissist? This research suggests that it might be OK, provided that social praise exactly mirrors objective indicators, or that the leader is not responsible for any decisions involving risk. Those are strict conditions, so it seems that it will nearly always be better not to be led by a narcissist.