When it comes to the portrayal of leadership in films and other fictional outlets, there’s a common tendency to present the leader as someone who is unmistakably confident and self-assured; who gives off an air of authority and a willingness to direct others towards the best path to take to get them out their current predicament. In many ways, this makes sense as when we think of a good leader, the traits that often come to mind are confidence, authority and dominance.
Of course, outside of the leadership role, the expression of such traits are not as well regarded considering that they are also the signs of a narcissistic personality – that such traits refer to an individual whose only concerned about their own self-interests, with little thought or regard for the needs or concerns of those around them.
So if we are to believe that leadership is about putting others before yourself, of encouraging those around you to succeed instead of simply directing them to help you personally attain some level of success, why is it that we continue to promote the narcissistic approach to leadership as the best one? More importantly, does the narcissistic style of leadership help to foster the necessary conditions organizations require to succeed in today’s inter-connected and increasingly competitive market? Three recent studies help to shed some light on this and provide empirical proof that allows us to come to a definitive answer to this question.
In the first study, researchers from the University of Amsterdam recruited 150 participants to perform an exercise where they had to select the best candidate for a job position. The participants were divided into groups of three, with one individual being randomly selected to be the leader of the group. Although all group members could offer their advice about which candidate they felt was the best choice, the participants were told that the leader of the group would have the final say as to which candidate would be selected.
As part of the experiment, all group members received the same information about the various candidates, with the exception of one member who received a few additional pieces of information. The researchers designed the experiment so that only those groups where this additional information was shared would select the best candidate, while those groups where this extra information was withheld would end up picking one of the less favourable choices.
Following each group’s selection of who they would hire for the job, the participants were given questionnaires to answer, with the participant selected to be the group leader answering questions to measure their level of narcissism, while the other group members were given questions to assess the group leader’s authority and level of effectiveness. All of the participants were also given a checklist to mark off what pieces of information were shared with the group to help them make their decision.
What the researchers found was that groups which were run by the most narcissistic leaders shared the least amount of information, resulting in these groups picking the worst candidate for the job. On the other hand, in groups where leaders scored lowest for narcissism, there was more information sharing and discussion between team members, allowing these groups to pick the best candidate.
From their research findings, lead study author Barbora Nevicka concluded that the “narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on their (group’s) performance. They inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism.”
But the most striking finding from their study is how these leaders were perceived by the other members in their group. Although narcissistic leaders failed to encourage their team to communicate and share information in order to pick the best candidate, they earned higher ratings in terms of being an effective leader than those who helped to guide their teams towards the right choice. In other words, participants viewed narcissists as being better leaders even though they did a poorer job leading their teams to the best outcome.
This finding seems to reinforce what we see in many films, literature and even mainstream commentary – namely, that our perception of what constitutes an effective leader has less to do with what they help others to accomplish as it does with the level of authority and dominance they exemplify.
But the presence of narcissism in leaders not only serves as an impediment for team performance. As these two other studies illustrate, it can also encourage conflicts between employees as well.
Researchers in the Netherlands surveyed over 130 healthcare workers to find out if they felt like they had an opportunity to voice their opinion and more importantly, if those in charge made them feel as though they were being heard. In addition, the researchers also asked participants to rate the amount of conflict they experienced within their teams.
Not surprisingly, in situations where input from employees is solicited but then ignored or disregarded, employees ended up tuning out and not fully participating in future discussions or planning efforts. However, what researchers also found is that in workplaces where leaders give lip-service to idea of listening to their employees, the amount of conflict between employees was greater than in those teams where leaders were attentive to what they were being told by their team members.
More often than not, we tend to look at conflicts in the workplace from the context of employee disagreement due to misconceptions or poor communications between the involved parties. While this might be the catalyst for most conflicts, what this study shows is that a leader’s indifference to truly listening to what their employees have to say sets the stage for others in their organization to focus on defending their turf instead of making efforts to understand why the conflict exists in the first place.
In fact, a joint study by the University of British Columbia, Clemson University, and Georgia State University found that employees who chose to sabotage the work of their colleagues do so not simply out of feelings of envy, but also because they suffer from disengagement brought on from the perception that their managers are keeping them ‘out of the loop’ . The researchers found that when leaders focus on creating a culture that encourages a sense of connectivity between employees, they are far less likely to undermine the efforts of their colleagues, regardless of how envious they might feel.
In each of these studies, we see the recurring theme of how it’s the responsibility of leaders to model the behaviour you want to see in others; of setting the tone and demonstrating what should matter most to your team and organization. In this light, it becomes clear that the inability to look beyond your own self-interests and needs not only undermines a team’s effectiveness, but it has negative repercussions on how employees work together and communicate with one another.
Of course, as the first study demonstrated, our own perceptions of what it takes to be a good leader can often be the wrong one; that we tend to believe that only those who are inclined to narcissistic tendencies will be successful in the leadership role.
Looking at these studies as a whole, though, we can see that to be truly successful as a leader requires a drive to help others to achieve success and not simply focusing on your own achievements. Indeed, the accomplishments of those we hold in high regard as being successful leaders are not personal in nature or specific to that individual. Rather, their successes are defined by how they helped their organization to attain goals or milestones which previously might have seemed unthinkable but which have since become a part of their collective history and culture.
In writing about leadership, Benjamin Franklin said:
He who cannot follow cannot lead”.
If nothing else, these studies serve to remind us that focusing only on ourselves, on what we want to accomplish – as opposed to what matters to everyone on your team – is not the path to becoming a true leader. That what it takes to be a leader in today’s world is someone who is driven not by their own selfish interests, but by a desire to help others succeed and in so doing, achieves a measure of success for themselves as well.