Power, Politics, and the Dangers of a Narcissistic Leader

5 minute read
“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich”1
“My IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”2
“I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”3

- President Donald Trump

Hearing these statements made by President Donald Trump, one might wonder how such a person was elected as the leader of the United States? Donald Trump has elicited concerns due to his comments on TV programs, his behavior at political debates and press conferences, and impulsive tweets. This has prompted some psychologists to attribute his behavior to the personality trait narcissism.4

Narcissism ranges in severity from being an undesirable trait to a clinical disorder. Those who are highly narcissistic tend to have a grandiose sense of self and have an impaired ability to understand reality. Researchers have found that those who are high in narcissism take credit for the success of others while blaming others for failure,5 and are openly and publicly abrasive in interpersonal interactions with people that they dislike.6 Though high narcissism may be an undesirable personal trait, this blog explores if it has an impact on the effectiveness of leadership.

Research has found that high narcissism interferes with the ability to be supportive and facilitative of followers, which are core components of effective leadership. Leaders high in narcissism tend to possess a strong sense of entitlement and exploitiveness,which may lead to the manipulation of followers and impede the effectiveness of leadership.

In a study of 500 CEOs, narcissistic CEOs were also found to be more likely to engage in fraud and other negative behaviors.7 This increased tendency to engage in unethical behavior may be problematic in all leadership positions, but we would argue that even more so when that leader is in a government agency where high ethical standards and integrity are fundamental.

Knowing that narcissism relates to negative outcomes, how does a narcissistic leader gain support in the first place? 

Those high in narcissism typically have high self-worth and self-sufficiency. They tend to possess a strong sense of ego, which enables them to be viewed in a leadership position.8 Furthermore, studies have found that in a crisis, people may gravitate towards candidates with strong policies towards reducing the crisis.9 This is called terror management theory,10 which is a motivational driving force that causes humans to minimize risks to increase survivability. The central focus is on self-preservation, and thus all other needs are pushed aside to focus on this main motive. This may explain why voters felt compelled by the radical points of President Trump’s platform to protect U.S. citizens from external threats, such as his promises for “extreme vetting” to screen out potential threats.


In contrast to narcissism, humility has been regarded as a “critical strength for leaders and organizations possessing it, and a dangerous weakness for those lacking it.”11 There are three main traits of humility. First, leaders high in humility have self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. They also are open to new ideas and to sharing personal limitations. Finally, they can see the larger perspective and transcend goals of personal gain for those that benefit others. These traits allow humble leaders to empower their followers to focus on growth and learning, which has been shown to result in longer periods of sustained organizational performance relative to organizations with leaders who are low on humility.11

Humble leaders are also likely to engage in transformational leadership, which is an effective leadership style centered on inspiring and motivating followers through a shared common goal. Transformational leadership has been related to a host of positive outcomes, such as follower satisfaction and increased organizational performance.12 Using power to help others is at the core of transformational leadership. If a leader is only interested in leadership for personal power, they may appear to be transformational, but fail to elicit the benefits of transformational leadership because they are engaging in self-promoting behaviors to exploit others.13

Humble leaders may excel in another effective form of leadership - ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership involves role modeling integrity, and setting the cultural norms and behaviors that trickle down to all levels of the organization. This trickledown effect was evidenced in a study involving 63 CEOs, 327 top management members, and 645 middle managers. 

The study showed that humble CEOs were effective at empowering the top management members, which subsequently influenced the organizational climate. The positive environment then empowered middle management and bolstered their performance.14 

Moreover, in a study involving 105 small to medium sized firms, humble CEOs were found to positively impact organizational performance15. Firms with humble CEOs were more likely to have effective communication processes, a strong shared vision, and better strategic planning. Such processes not only contribute to an overall stronger bottom line, but also often result in a positive experience for employees.16

 These findings suggest that for effective leadership, a leader should demonstrate high humility, such that they act with integrity and role model ethical behavior to the organization. Though leaders could be selected based on high humility as a personal trait, some actionable changes that any leader can engage in to practice humble leadership, include increasing communication with employees, empowering them in their day-to-day tasks, and involving them to some degree in the decision-making process. Humble leaders lead by focusing on the improvement of others, while narcissistic leaders focus on the improvement of themselves. By shifting the focus to the needs of the organization, leaders can practice more effective leadership.

This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.

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