Narcissism and Leadership

In his NY Times Health section article on November 29, 2010 entitled “A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored,” Charles Zanor described practicing psychiatrists’ responses to omitting Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a mental health diagnosis. For professionals who select, develop and supervise decision-makers, the central concerns about powerful, arrogant managers are more immediate than diagnostic nosology. They include:

1. What is the cost to the organization of failure to identify and coach arrogant, self-absorbed managers?

2. At what point does a manger advance from self-confidence to derailing arrogance?

3. Why can’t we detect that potential risk with in-depth interviews, assessment centers, and detailed examinations of past roles?

4. Are there benefits to the organization to have supremely confident leaders? In fact, aren’t many business books written about just those individuals?

5. How do we harness the strength of bold and arrogant leaders while preventing them from derailing both themselves and the organization?

The potential costs of hiring arrogant leaders are seldom recognized during recruitment interviews. Arrogant leaders seem confident and forward looking in initial interactions, even when they involve multiple interviewers. Arrogant people often perform well in assessment centers because they seem inspiring and resilient. Their arrogance is often not easily seen in the job history because we do not see the wake that arrogant leaders leave behind them. In addition, their former roles were often sufficiently restricted to keep their arrogance in check. The costs of hiring arrogant leaders is substantial, however, because of their disrespect toward team members, failure to develop their direct reports (often out a concern for creating a rival), inability to assess risk, and their penchant for making rash decisions based on a supreme belief in their own skills.

The Hogan Development Survey (HDS), especially the Bold scale, goes much further in assessing the strengths and risks of arrogant managers than do other selection procedures. When a decision-maker’s Bold scale is very high (above 90), the individual is making two basic assertions. First, the individual is claiming “I achieve better results than do most people I know because I am more talented.” Second, the individual is claiming “Because of my superior talent and results, I am entitled to greater recognition, authority and status.”

Many of the negative impacts, both the organization and to the other team members, usually arrive in the medium and long-term rather than immediately upon assuming the role. For example, anyone who has been awake during the past four years has witnessed the costs to the world’s economy of over-reaching decision-makers who failed to assess looming threats, and often also failed to respond to offers of help until it was too late (e.g., Richard Fuld at Lehman Brothers). In addition, the Whitehall study in the UK has demonstrated that supervisors who are disrespectful and demeaning toward direct reports increased those direct reports’ heart disease and death rates. Clearly, arrogant managers (very high Bold scorers) are often not skilled at engaging competent team members.

In fact, part of the risk of high Bold managers is their selection of direct reports. They tend to surround themselves with subordinates whose posture is “If I hitch my wagon to this star, I can become confident too, and will be part of the new vision. This manager is moving up, and I want to be there, cheering. I don’t want to miss this golden opportunity. I get the impression that this individual has the guts to throw the nay-sayers under the bus, but I’ll be one of the people with a good seat on that bus.”

Though extremely high Bold scorers can achieve a great deal, it is prudent during recruitment to recognize the risks. When the organization decides to take the chance that the individual’s self-confidence seen on Bold is a net plus, constraints need to be put in place on the person’s scope of authority and financial discretion prior to his/her first day on the job. “Waiting until there is a problem”, a popular if misguided management strategy, is not a winning formula for extreme Bold scorers. Caution is especially critical if the individual will be chief executive or other senior manager. In those cases, the Board needs to know in advance of the blessings and potential curses that accompany powerful but arrogant executives.

As Zanor’s article indicated, the psychiatric diagnosticians are jettisoning some of the “type” diagnoses in order to adopt a “dimensional” approach, a strategy that Hogan Assessment Systems values. However, we can select “consistent pattern” plus “dimensional” descriptions of individuals. We can pay attention to candidate’s individual qualities (e.g., arrogance as measured by Bold) as well as recognizable patterns (very high scores on Excitable, Skeptical and Bold, usually predicting an abusive autocrat). The HDS, especially when combined with the HPI and the MVPI, can give us a rich picture of an individual that cannot be seen with interviews, assessment centers or job history.