Charisma can counterbalance the negative effects of narcissism in presidential candidates

New research on the 2016 U.S. presidential election provides evidence that charisma may serve as a balance to narcissism. The study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“I study charismatic leadership and wanted to explore the association with narcissism,” said Ethlyn Williams, an associate professor of management at Florida Atlantic University.

“Leaders can be described as charismatic because of their behaviors. Publications by renowned leadership scholars such as Boas Shamir and colleagues in the 1990s noted that charismatic leaders use verbal and symbolic behavior to highlight the importance of certain values and connect with followers’ identity. They articulate the goals and the required efforts in terms of those values and identities.”

“These actions are used by charismatic leaders to make efforts and goals more meaningful for followers,” Williams explained. “When running for a leadership position the ability to identify with followers and connect through emotions and values builds follower loyalty.

“Some seminal research published by Bernard Bass in 1985 notes that when followers attribute charisma to leaders they are sharing that they view the leader as able to powerfully articulate goals, project success, and self-confidence, and arouse emotion in the follower.”

In the study, 426 participants completed surveys two weeks before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and one week after the election. The participants were asked to evaluate both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton regarding narcissism, charisma, and value congruence.

People were less likely to vote for a candidate who they viewed as narcissistic. But the researchers also found evidence that charisma tempered the negative effects of narcissism.

“Researchers studying narcissism have tried to understand the negative and positive aspects of being viewed as narcissistic. The positive aspects include self-confidence and authority in decision making,” Williams told PsyPost.

“It appears from our research that several factors affect followers when they assess leaders and they take in to account the negative and positive aspects of each leader in deciding who to support. Thus, they balance the negative and positives.”

“Narcissism can be viewed as a negative for leadership while charisma is typically viewed as positive. Therefore, when both are present in a leader it creates a sense that the leader has a strong ability to lead despite certain flaws.”

The study — like all research — has some limitations. The researchers only examined a sample from the U.S. electorate, so the findings may not apply to other countries and cultures.

“Research suggests that narcissism is common among U.S. presidents. Depending on the actions that are practiced by the leader, this can have negative outcomes or continue to attract voters – based on the way they are able to inspire followers with a call to action,” Williams explained.

A previous study on the 42 United States presidents up to and including George W. Bush found that grandiose narcissism was associated with greater overall presidential success. But it was also associated with some negative outcomes, such as presidential impeachment resolutions.

“The research findings are mixed with some research suggesting a negative association between narcissism and charisma, and others a positive association, especially in research on presidents,” Williams said.

“Because studies that have looked at presidential leadership have typically looked at historical data we wanted to study the association using reports of followers’ real-time perceptions during the 2016 election cycle to see what the correlation would be. We believed the association would be negative.

“We expected that with prolonged access to information on presidential candidates’, negative qualities of narcissism would emerge such as arrogance and self-centeredness. Our research reported a negative correlation,” Williams noted.

“The ability to meet expectations will affect how a leader is viewed. It will be interesting to see how followers react over time. In some preliminary research that we have conducted on President Trump’s leadership evaluations by followers, we find that he is being viewed positively by those who continued to see him as charismatic, with positive performance evaluations and job approval. Those who viewed him as self-interested reported negative performance evaluations and job approval.”

The study, “Did charisma ‘Trump’ narcissism in 2016? Leader narcissism, attributed charisma, value congruence and voter choice“, was authored by Ethlyn A. Williams, Rajnandini Pillai, Bryan J. Deptula, Kevin B. Lowe, and Kate McCombs.