Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Narcissists tend to lead, but not better

When a group lacks a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge, new research suggests. Narcissism is a trait in which people are selfcentered, exaggerate their abilities, and lack empathy.

Scientists conducting the new studies found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups.

Narcissism is so called after Narcissus, a mythical Greek character who fell in love with his own reflection. Above, Narcissus by Caravaggio (c. 1597.)

"Not only did narcissists rate themselves as leaders, which you would expect, but other group members also saw them as the people who really run the group," said psychologist Amy Brunell of Ohio State University at Newark, lead author of the research.

The findings are to appear in an upcoming issue of the research journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The researchers found similar results in two studies involving college students, and one involving business managers in an MBA program. And while narcissists are more likely to become leaders, one experiment found that narcissists don't perform any better than others in a leadership role, Brunell and colleagues said.

A first study by Brunell's group involved 432 college students. They all completed assessments measuring various personality traits. They were then put in groups of four, and told to pretend they were a committee of officers of the student union, and they had to elect next year's director. Each person in a group was given a profile of a different candidate, and each was to argue for that candidate.

After the discussion, they voted on the director, and then completed a questionnaire evaluating the leadership of themselves and the other group members.

Results showed that students who scored higher on one dimension of narcissismthe desire for powerwere more likely to say they wanted to lead the group, were more likely to say they did lead the group discussion, and were more likely to be viewed as leaders by the other group members.

"Desire for power is what really drives narcissists to seek leadership positions," Brunell said.

In a second experiment, 408 students were again put in groups of four. They were told to imagine they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and had to choose which 15 salvageable items they should take ashore to best help them survive. After a group discussion, those who scored highest on the power dimension of narcissism again showed the most desire to lead the discussion, rated themselves as leaders, and were viewed as the leaders.

This study also investigated how well the narcissists did as leaders. Researchers looked at the lists, prepared by each individual and group, of the 15 chosen items. They compared the lists to one prepared by an expert who has taught survival skills to the U.S military. Narcissists did no better than others on choosing the most useful items, Brunell's team said. And groups that overall scored highest on narcissism did no better than other groups.

A third study involved 153 business managers enrolled in an executive MBA program at a large southeastern university. The managers were also put in groups of four and told to assume the role of a school board deciding how to allocate a large financial contribution from a fictional company.

Two trained observers professors or doctoral students in industrial and organizational psychology observed the groups and rated how much of a leadership role each participant assumed in their groups. Results showed that the students rated highest in narcissism were most likely to be identified as emerging leaders by the expert observers, the researchers found.

"Even trained observers saw narcissistic people as the natural leaders," Brunell said. "In addition, this study showed that narcissism plays a role in leadership among realworld managers."

Brunell said the studies took into account other factors such as gender and personality traits like high selfesteem and extraversion that may relate to leadership development. But even when these factors were taken into account, narcissism still played a key role.

It's important not to confuse narcissism with high selfesteem, she said.

"A person with high selfesteem is confident and charming, but they also have a caring component," Brunell explained. "Narcissists have an inflated view of their talents and abilities and are all about themselves."

Brunell said the results may apply to many areas of life, from the presidential race to Wall Street. "Many people have observed that it takes a narcissistic person to run for president of the United States," she said. "I would be surprised if any of the candidates who have run weren't higher than average in narcissism."

The same is true for the leaders of Wall Street firms that have made and lost millions in the past few years, she added. "There have been a lot of studies that have found narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decisionmaking performance," she said. That doesn't mean all the troubles in Washington or Wall Street can be blamed on narcissistic leaders, she added. "There's a lot more behind the troubles of government and business than the personalities of their leaders."

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