Is A Narcissistic CEO Good For Your Organization?

We know from research reported here last week that on an interpersonal level, narcissistic leaders leave a lot to be desired (ok, they suck). If you work for a narcissist, you are not likely inspired by your leader’s vision (if he/she has even offered one), you are probably not recognized and rewarded the way you should be for your performance and (big surprise here) your morale and motivation is not what you know it should be. Your leader does not have either the time or the energy to care about himself and you, so stop whining!

Narcissists are not easy to work for. But when the narcissist is the CEO, what happens to organizational performance? Does a more narcissistic CEO deliver better (or worse) performance than a less narcissistic CEO?

That is one of the questions answered in an exceptional study by Arijit Chatterjee and Donald C. Hambrick published in one of our top research journals, Administrative Science Quarterly. The data from the study come from 111 CEOs in the computer hardware and software industries from 1992-2004. Here is what they found:

In our sample, narcissistic CEOs did not generate better or worse performance than less narcissistic CEOs. Rather, they tended to undertake relatively bold, risky actions, and they generated performance that was either very good or very bad and that tended to swing between these extremes. (p. 382).

The authors caution that although narcissism had no effect on performance in the highly dynamic industry they studied, this finding might not hold true in other industries. They suggest that “narcissism could have a negative effect in more stable settings, which call for strategic persistence and continuous improvement of existing formulas” (p. 379).

Based on the findings of this research, here is what narcissism in the C-suite will do for your organization: Your narcissistic CEO craves attention, so get ready for new initiatives and new strategic directions that will keep him/her on stage in ways that strategic stability cannot. And get ready to meet new people, because numerous and large acquisitions will give your narcissistic CEO the ability to expand the size and scope of his/her kingdom boldly and rapidly. These new initiatives and acquisitions are going to result in either big wins or big losses, so hang on. And even if you do get a big win, don’t think it will last forever. Fueled by the proof that he/she really is a superior leader, your narcissistic CEO will have an intense need to have that superiority reaffirmed, so prepare yourself for the climax to the drama that is playing in the theatre of the CEO’s mind.

Given the evidence of the negative interpersonal effects narcissistic leaders have on the folks that work for them, is it ever worth it to trust the future of your organization to a narcissist? If they could deliver superior organizational performance, it might be. But there is no evidence to suggest that a narcissistic CEO will outperform a less narcissistic CEO, so my advice would be to save yourself and your organization the headache and avoid them altogether.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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