The Leaders We Love at Our Peril

Why do narcissists climb organizational ladders so quickly, and what makes them so appealing?

Streaming services are certainly doing their best to satiate the public’s interest in stories about the cult of the leader and entrepreneurs gone awry. For example, there’s Apple TV’s WeCrashed about Adam and Rebekah Neumann of WeWork, Showtime’s Super Pumped, the first season of which focuses on Travis Kalanick of Uber, and the Netflix documentary Fyre Island: The Greatest Party that Never Happened that followed Billy McFarland to Pablo Escobar’s island in the Bahamas. Since Hulu’s Dropout premiered, Amanda Seyfried won an Emmy Award and Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos and protagonist of the miniseries, has been sentenced to jail time.

Holmes captivated investors, employees, doctors, and patients with her charisma and her (empty) promises about her revolutionary blood-testing technique. Some hailed her as the new Steve Jobs, a driven young woman who dropped out of Stanford to pursue the American dream and become a successful self-made entrepreneur. A dream indeed. An aura of success shrouds leaders like Elizabeth Holmes, whose narcissistic tendencies are not only ruining companies but also the lives of the people involved.

It is probably only a matter of time before we get a miniseries titled “SBF,” about the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried, who took FTX from a peak of $32 billion to bankruptcy and is now under investigation after misusing customers’ funds. Bankman-Fried has said that his motive in building up FTX to such incredible wealth was to maximize the amount he could donate to charity over his lifetime. Robinhood intentions and effective altruism such as this are often used to camouflage misconduct.

Put simply, these are narcissistic times (particularly in the United States.) And unfortunately, rather than being inspired by humble leaders, it is ego and bravado that lures us. As humans, we hunger for superheroes and this desire makes us vulnerable to the shine that emanates from narcissistic leaders. Narcissists have a grandiose conception of themselves, a heightened sense of self-importance, boundless ambition, and a host of fantasies based on supposed success and power. They are expert manipulators who tend to blur the line between truth and lies, and hold little empathy for others. Their destructive traits are camouflaged under a veneer of charisma and fake friendliness, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Their exceptionally curated self-image makes them attractive and worthy of admiration. Yet, it is all a front that they use to take advantage of their victims.

We tend to fall in love with the leaders who suit us the least.

Highly narcissistic individuals become CEOs more quickly than those with the same qualifications, according to Paola Rovell of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and Camilla Curnis of the Milan Polytechnic University. Their research found that executives with high levels of narcissism moved up the organizational ladder 29% faster than other employees with similar skills.

Narcissism is part of what is known as the “dark triad,” along with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, and these personality traits are more prevalent in senior executive roles than in the general population. Why is it that narcissistic individuals are able to climb the organizational ladder so quickly? It has much to do with how they are perceived by others. Crisis situations, for example, tend to make us all more vulnerable to falling under the spell of the grandiose image conveyed by the narcissistic individual and we are more likely to believe it when they claim they can save us from the crisis.

And this is where the paradox lies – we tend to fall in love with the leaders who suit us the least, to choose leaders who peddle easy solutions to current problems but who are a liability in the long run. Collectively, we hold onto this heroic idea of leaders as self-reliant individuals who possess extraordinary powers and narcissistic individuals are drawn to the pedestal we offer them. First they gain trust via friendliness and charisma, and once the victim (an individual or a group) is emotionally involved, the narcissist asks for loyalty (including money) and then drops them when they don’t play along. This type of deception is very difficult to pinpoint at first because they are usually very successful people who are highly opaque and put a lot of effort into creating a good public image of themselves. 

So how can we spot a narcissist? There are five behavior patterns of a narcissistic leader:

  1. Self-aggrandizement
  2. Narcissists are driven by ego and present a larger-than-life image of themselves. Holmes’ image of success included private jets, expensive purchases, and luxury restaurants and hotels. She dressed in imitation of her idol Steve Jobs and surrounded herself during public appearances with high-powered people. She even, now famously, changed the tone of her voice to sound more powerful and convincing. It was all a performance that she used to gain the trust of doctors, investors, patients and journalists, people like Henry Kissinger and the members of the Walton family. It worked: Holmes seduced and dazzled her way into a total of $700 million dollars.

  3. Lack of empathy
  4. The first impression narcissists give off is that they are charming and indeed they are. At first. But, it is difficult for them to maintain long-term relationships with others due to a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. They build instrumental relationships with the sole aim of furthering their personal goals. Again, Holmes provides us with a typical example in how she would fire people for no apparent reason, even acting aggressively. After dismissing one of her lead engineers, she reportedly said, “I don’t care, we can change people in and out, the company is all that matters.” That’s quite the management mantra. 

  5. Extra-ordinary vision
  6. Narcissists often lead with a vision that, in many cases, is far removed from reality. Holmes named her device “Edison” and believed that her product was “the most important thing humanity has ever built.” Neumann told The New York Times that by “encouraging strangers to share a beer at the office…WeWork can heal our fractured society.” These individuals have idealistic – and rather unrealistic – notions of success. This approach is often rewarded in companies with more power, money, and admiration. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that even the narcissistic leader overestimates his or her capabilities (they believe it too!). To that point, they are so caught up in themselves that they do not recognize the talent of others and thus do not adequately use the team to close the gap between vision and execution. In the end, their ambitious plans don’t often become reality. 

  7. Two sides: friendly and dark
  8. One of the hallmarks of a narcissist is that they have two sides to them. There is the one they carefully cultivate, which is attractive, attentive, funny, intelligent. Unfortunately, this side is a highly premeditated tactic used in the early stages of a relationship (personal or business) to gain the trust and partnership of others. But there is often a point when narcissists let down the mask and radically change their behavior and discourse – for example, when they have gotten total buy-in, money, information, contacts, etc – at which point they become distant, uncaring, even aggressive. 

  9. A communication of lies

Narcissists are always making promises that they can’t keep – or simply don’t intend to keep. These lies can range from the small and irrelevant to the manipulation of data. Because narcissists are driven by a sense of entitlement, they are more likely to cheat and transgress social norms. They have lower ethical standards and new research shows that leaders with narcissistic personalities jeopardize the very organizations they lead with their counterproductive behavior.

Indeed, the narcissistic individual takes on the title of leader but does not act as a leader. They are drawn to the role just as we are drawn to them in the role. Because the outcome is destructive to individuals, teams, and organizations, we must take greater care when choosing our leaders. Candidates for top management positions should be evaluated on their individual accomplishments and teams’ performance and growth – not on a future promised. Narcissistic leaders tend to take credit for successes and blame others for failures, so it is relatively easy for them to build a professional reputation that propels them up the career ladder. To avoid this, organizations should implement an appraisal and reward system that recognizes humility over arrogance, wisdom over visibility.

This is no easy task of course. Companies are made up of people. In general, we people have a tendency towards hope – hope that we can create a better world, that our companies can help advance society. This sentiment is not a bad one, far from it, but we must remain grounded in reality and choose leaders that are too.


© IE Insights.





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