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Darla Moore School of Business


Underlying CEO narcissism might not be as destructive as you think

May 26, 2017

Self-absorbed. Attention-seeking. Unrealistic self-view. General lack of regard for others. These are some of the characteristics most often associated with narcissism. Now consider these: Innovation. Confidence. Bold vision. Willingness to take risks. These positive traits go hand in hand with the negative ones. Combined, these characteristics can contribute to great success in the business world, which is probably why they can be found in the CEOs of major companies.

Management professors Patrick Wright, Anthony Nyberg and Donald Schepker at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business have been monitoring trends in executive development for the past five years. This year, in the annual survey they send to chief human resources officers, they included questions concerning narcissistic qualities to be answered with the CHROs respective CEOs in mind. In addition to those results, Moore School doctoral student Ormonde Cragun gathered observable characteristics from annual company reports, proxy statements, press releases and other sources that shed light on CEO personalities.

Their preliminary findings show that those working closely with a narcissist have a different perspective on the narcissist’s intensity than is observable from afar. Narcissistic CEOs tend to care less about developing talent or being fair or transparent. On the other hand, studies have shown that narcissists tend to be more innovative, among other more positively perceived characteristics.

It is important to note that those found to have more narcissistic tendencies are not clinical narcissists. Their levels of narcissism are marginal and do not rise to the level of a dysfunctional personality disorder.

“Functioning narcissists have learned how to behave very well,” Cragun said. “You can’t exactly climb the corporate ladder and get to the top by offending people as you go.”

Surprisingly, they did not find narcissistic leaders caring as much about developing talent for succession as they expected, of particular interest to Cragun as talent development is primarily what he studies. They expected that narcissists would seek more control over succession activities as it’s another way to make them look good, but it could also divert attention away from themselves to other people.

“That type of leader might not actually care about developing leaders,” Cragun said. “They might only care about getting results.”

Another correlation they didn’t see is a relationship between a company’s past performance and their selection of a narcissistic leader; more research is needed to understand what causes companies to select leaders with more narcissistic tendencies and how that affects corporate performance.

According to Cragun, it’s important not to jump to the usual conclusions that narcissism is inherently bad.

“All successful individuals have some level of narcissism,” he said.

This line of research will further examine the good characteristics tied to narcissism and how to help leaders capitalize on those while managing the more negative traits. Ideally, this will help them improve their relationships by being more transparent and considerate. Cragun is also interested to see if America’s productivity could be partially attributed to narcissism.

“Narcissism is an unknown as far as what it brings to corporate dynamics and performance,” Cragun said.

By Madeleine Vath