Why do firms keep hiring narcissistic CEOs?

Why do firms keep hiring narcissistic CEOs?

Our levels of narcissism have been increasing over the past few decades, according to a study conducted by the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University.

Perhaps the rise of social media encouraging us to tout our opinions and the culture of talentless celebrities, who have amassed their brands through self-promotion means it has become less frowned upon to be self-centred, especially in our careers.

The notion of a celebrity ‘CEO’ being a super brand of a firm has also become a trend in recent years.

In an article written for Harvard Business Review by Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at the University College London, he cites research by both Schopenhauer and Freud and identifies that the connection between narcissism and leadership is nothing new.

He writes: “There is a natural tension between people’s selfish and prosocial drives; humans often resemble hedgehogs in the winter, in that when they get cold, they need to get close to each other to warm up, but if they get too close, things become a bit prickly. We cannot make it alone, but we care too much about ourselves to genuinely care about others. This tension between our desire to get along with others and our desire to get ahead of them represents the fundamental conundrum of human affairs.

“The main role of leaders is to manage this tension in their teams. Through their authority, vision, and higher sense of purpose, leaders provide a meaningful mission to the group that momentarily erodes individuals’ selfish instincts so they can focus on the collective well-being. In other words, effective leaders suppress people’s narcissism, often by subordinating it to their own. When followers are drawn to transformational and charismatic leaders, they are essentially loving themselves through those leaders, much like our love for a romantic partner is an indirect form of self-love.”

He says that narcissistic leaders, whilst they may be successful can also be destructive. Citing research and past behaviours, Chamorro-Premuzic says that self-centred CEOs tend to overpay when they acquire firms (costing their shareholders), their firms perform in a volatile and unpredictable fashion, and they are often involved in counterproductive work behaviours, such as fraud. They are also more likely to abuse power.

The negative effects of narcissism and other dark-side personality traits have been documented, but firms seem to keep going for those types of candidates. He supposes that our unconscious views rooted in our archaic prehistorical archetypes could explain the preference for strong risk takers over and above vulnerable, self-critical, leaders.

Chamorro-Premuzic believes that the criteria we use to evaluate and select leaders should have evolved, to differentiate between the personality traits held by narcissistic leaders and individuals who don’t.

Recently, we reported on 8 ways to spot a corporate psychopath – click here for more.

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