A study published in The Leadership Quarterly sheds new light on why company leaders tend to be disproportionately narcissistic. Among a sample of Italian CEOs, those who were highly narcissistic had advanced to CEO more quickly in their careers than those who were not.
In recent years, the study of narcissism in the workplace has exploded. A main finding that has garnered much interest is that executive leaders tend to be higher in narcissism — a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a strong desire for power, and a propensity for manipulative behavior.
Despite the vast attention toward the topic, study authors Paola Rovelli of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and Camilla Curnis of the Politecnico di Milano School of Management say that it remains unclear how narcissism affects a person’s career path, and whether or not a narcissistic personality leads people to advance to CEO more quickly.
“Chief Executive Officers are undoubtedly very influential figures in business. In fact, they are responsible for the strategy of the firms they run, as well as for the management of operations, and mobilization of resources, which ultimately impact financial performance,” the researchers tell PsyPost.
“For these reasons, studying CEOs is relevant – observing them, understanding which of their characteristics trigger their thinking and decision making, can help explain key organizational outcomes. Focusing on the personality of these individuals is also of key importance as we all know that narcissists tend to behave differently from less narcissistic individuals.”
The literature has identified key personality traits that do predict a greater chance of becoming a leader — extraversion, over-confidence, self-esteem, dominance, and authoritarianism. As Rovelli and Curnis point out, all five of these traits are characteristic of people who are highly narcissistic.
The researchers set out to examine the career trajectories of current leaders and to compare each leader’s career history to their level of narcissism. In this way, Rovelli and Curnis were able to look backward and see whether CEOs with higher narcissism had made their way more quickly into leadership positions.
The study was conducted among a final sample of 172 Italian CEOs. The leaders completed questionnaires that included questions about the design of the organizations they were leading and then completed the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI). The researchers then obtained each CEO’s professional history, including their educational background, previous assignments, and previous positions leading up to their appointment as CEO.
Rovelli and Curnis then conducted a series of statistical analyses to determine the likelihood of a participant being appointed CEO at a given timepoint in their career.
The results revealed that narcissism was very strongly and positively linked to the likelihood of being made CEO at a given time point. In fact, an increase in narcissism of one standard deviation was linked to a 29% higher likelihood of becoming CEO. Moreover, even very high levels of narcissism (two standard deviations above the mean) increased the likelihood of being appointed CEO.
While the researchers had originally posited that narcissism would be less strongly linked to CEO attainment in family businesses compared to non-family businesses, this was not the case. The results showed that narcissism was linked to a higher chance of advancing to CEO regardless of the type of firm.
The researchers suggest that a narcissistic personality leads certain people to behave “like stars.” Armed with higher ambition and greater confidence, people who are high in narcissism are more likely to seek leadership positions and are promoted more quickly than others.
“The key outcome of our research is that narcissistic individuals progress in their careers to the CEO position faster. This occurs independently of the type of firm they are operating in — in our case, family versus nonfamily businesses,” Rovelli and Curnis explain.
“Our results are somewhat worrying – in fact, they imply that organizations and boards favor the emergence of narcissistic individuals to key leadership positions. Narcissism is known to be a dark trait, and individuals who are characterized by higher levels of narcissisms are known to procure negative outcomes for the firm, such as financial crime, tax avoidance, less collaborative cultures and more.”
Research has shown that these types of leaders hinder the flow of communication throughout the company and have employees who are less happy. The researchers add that since narcissistic leaders appear to make their way to CEO faster, businesses risk ending up with younger leaders with less experience than older candidates.
“We think that our work could be useful for many practitioners, especially firms in the process of appointing a new CEO. In fact, the main finding of this paper is that a good dose of non-clinical narcissism provides individuals with a push forward in climbing the corporate ladder. However, firms should be aware of the negative behavioral tendencies and organizational outcomes that are typically associated with narcissism.
“Moreover, since narcissism speeds up appointment, firms might find themselves with younger CEOs who are less experienced than older ones, adding a further element of risk for the firm. As a conclusion, firms should be wary of favoring the appointment of narcissistic individuals, even if evidence shows that such individuals are actually appointed to the CEO position at a faster pace,” the researchers tell PsyPost.
Rovelli and Curnis note that their study shows that the link between narcissism and leadership is relevant in the real-world context of business management, given that they explored the career trajectory of actual CEOs rather than relying on an experimental study in the lab. The findings also offer evidence that this relationship extends outside the U.S. since their study focused on Italian CEOs.
Still, the researchers acknowledge that their study was limited because they did not control for other aspects that might influence the link between narcissism and risk of becoming CEO, such as the characteristics of the board of directors within a company.
“Recent literatures has highlighted the distinction between bright and dark narcissism. The first is characterized by traits that are socially desirable such as authority or self-sufficiency, whereas the latter is fundamentally related to a more manipulative and exploitative side of personality. It would be valuable to understand if the emergence of leaders is favored by the bright or dark side of narcissism,” Rovelli and Curnis say.
“Similarly, it would be important to assess the moderating effect of the economic environment, to see whether narcissistic individuals are more likely to be appointed in periods of economic boom or bust. This is were we aim to go with out future research.”
The study, “The perks of narcissism: Behaving like a star speeds up career advancement to the CEO position”, was published December 11, 2020.