Inflated egos may mask deep inner insecurities – what does this mean for leadership?
Scientific research suggests that it is shockingly common for narcissistic individuals to become powerful leaders, particularly when they are male. Perhaps this explains why it’s not terribly difficult to think of famous leaders who behave in entitled, self-important, overconfident, and self-absorbed ways. Or why a humble politician, entrepreneur, or business executive is as improbable as an Argentine vegan (in Argentina, where I grew up, veganism is even more improbable than humility, and a vegetarian is “someone who enjoys their steak with a salad”).
But, are narcissistic leaders really as confident as they seem? Leaving aside the non-trivial fact that their confidence is unlikely to reflect actual competence, as there is marginal overlap between how people think they are, and how good they actually are, an intriguing question is whether their apparent assertiveness and bravado truly derives from similar levels of inner confidence. So, even if narcissistic leaders lack the actual talents to match their grandiose self-presentation, can we be sure that their external confidence and bravado is genuine, to the point of accurately reflects their megalomaniac visions, fantasized talents, and delusions of grandeur, or could they simply be faking arrogance, or even overcompensating for some inner insecurities?
Although this question seems very current, especially if you watch the news, it is by no means new. In fact, if there is one robust generalization to draw from the more than 100-years of psychological research into narcissism, it’s the fact that narcissism is a complex, multifaceted, and nuance trait. In this rich and varied line of research, there has been consistent attention to the possibility that narcissists’ external dominance and aggressiveness may mask internal insecurities. Most famously, Adler noted that “when a person with an active mental life recognizes an inferiority in one of his organs, it acts as a spur and calls out a higher level of performance in him through overcompensation.” This suggests that one of the explanations for the relentless drive and pathological ambition of extraordinary achievers is their strong need to compensate for some inner insecurities, to self-medicate their deeply rooted status anxieties through socially celebrated accomplishments. According to this view, ambition is best interpreted as an inability to be satisfied with one’s achievements: when someone immerses in an indefatigable quest for status as fame, as in the case of narcissistic leaders, there is probably a fragile ego there, in need of constant validation and approval.
But not all narcissists fit this profile, and not all narcissistic leaders are created equal. Vulnerable narcissists, such as the fictional yet hyper-realistic David Brent and Michael Scott, are neurotic and insecure creates desperately trying to impress others in order to inflate their self-concept. But because they are uncapable of believing their own hype, and too self-aware of their mediocrity, we empathize with them (of course, things would be different if we actually had to work for them). Importantly, although being aware the gap between the person you are and the person you want to be is unpleasant, it is also the cornerstone for improvement. If you don’t like the person you see when you look at yourself in the mirror, you have a reason to change and get better. This means that, for insecure, neurotic, or vulnerable narcissists, there is still hope. They have not totally lost touch with reality, that thing that doesn’t go away just because you stop thinking about it.
However, many leaders display a type of narcissism that shows no traces of insecurity, let alone self-awareness. This grandiose form of egomania is less compatible with self-doubt, and far more effective at reality distortion. Fittingly, academic research has described its central ingredients as entitlement, grandiose exhibitionism, exploitativeness, and… leadership. When leadership ceases to be a resource for the team or the organization, a force that makes people better together, to instead be reduced to an individual career destination, a personal success accolade, or the ultimate status signal, we should not be surprised that a disproportionately high number of narcissists are attracted to it. To make matters worse, leaders’ narcissism often coexists with psychopathic tendencies, resulting in a particularly brutal and toxic cocktail. If narcissism fuels an obsession for fame and success, psychopathy injects a fearless appetite for breaking the rules and taking advantage of others, and both traits overlap in one key aspect: lack of empathy or interest in what others think or feel. If you think it can’t get much worse, think again. Narcissistic and psychopathic leaders are often charismatic, which will make them far more effective. Charisma is mostly an amplifier, so when you have competent and ethical leaders, you want them to be as charismatic as possible. But when they are incompetent or unethical, their charisma will amplify their destructive nature. A quick tour through the modern history of brutal dictators will show that they were not just narcissistic psychopaths who created a personality cult, but also charismatic communicators capable of deep emotional connections with others, connections they faked to feel.
Perhaps it is too naïve to hope to reframe leadership as a humble, servant, altruistic role devoted to bettering others and enabling team work, so we should learn to adjust to the reality that narcissistic personalities will always gravitate towards leadership roles, not least because leadership will always comprise the exercise of power, which will always appeal to status-seeking narcissists. Our best hope, then, is for leaders to learn to keep their narcissism in check. Even if they are corrupted by a psychological superiority complex, they may learn to behave in more modest or humble ways, perhaps even question their inflated egos. In that sense, the prospect of narcissistic leaders being less overconfident than they appear may, alas, be our best case scenario. Unless we are capable of picking leaders on the basis of their competent humility, rather than their incompetent arrogance, our best bet is that those who manage to manipulate their way up are somewhat capable, and interested, of developing the skills they need to avoid destroying their own and others’ careers. If self-preservation is as appealing to narcissists as it should theoretically be, then let us hope that there is still a modicum degree of self-doubt and insecurity in those leaders who seem so unjustifiably pleased with themselves, and unaware of their limitations.
A final note, hard to exclude, but almost unnecessary to include, in connection to this topic, is where in this spectrum Donald Trump may be located. While no other U.S. presidents have been linked to narcissism as much as Trump, with experts differing mostly in the severity or degree of his narcissistic tendencies, it is important to understand that the real problem is that, when it comes to heads of state, or at least their narcissistic motivations and inflated egos, Trump is closer to the norm than the exception. Way before Trump, academic research suggested that charismatic narcissists have tended to over-index among U.S. presidents, and if you asked people around the world whether their current head of state is (a) humble or (b) narcissistic, even in places where people are mostly satisfied with their government, you will see how prevalent narcissism is in politics. Let’s face it, would anyone truly humble and modest do what they need to do to become U.S. president? Of course, even if you agree with this logic it is clear why Trump is generating so much shock: because he stands out even in his class, defying already high expectations for how narcissistic and egomaniac one expects political leaders to be.
Let’s hope that this trend is reversed, so that in 50-yrs time we don’t look at the current political leaders as humble creatures of the past.