Academics have often suggested that there are two kinds of narcissistic leader: those whose self-belief serves to benefit the organization, and those whose arrogance is actually destructive.
But new research by the University of Leicester's Professor Mark Stein suggests that a self-centred leader can actually possess both of these characteristics at different times -- and can change from a good boss to a bad one when things are getting tough for the organization.
Professor Stein, Chair of Leadership and Management at the University's School of Management, presented his research findings on 9 May at the 25th Greek Leadership Congress in Athens.
Chaired by Professor Haridimos Tsoukas, Chair at the Universities of Warwick and Cyprus, and former editor of 'Organization Studies', the Congress was attended by 350 business leaders from around Greece, and was extensively reported in the Greek Business daily 'Naftemporiki'.
The talk follows the publication of Professor Stein's paper When Does Narcissistic Leadership Become Problematic? in the Journal of Management Inquiry.
Focusing especially on the implications for leadership, Professor Stein's research examines the issue of narcissism, a concept from psychoanalysis which refers to those with an exaggerated admiration of one's own attributes and skills.
He notes it has long been held that those with strong narcissistic tendencies are frequently drawn to leadership positions out of a need for power and prestige. Interestingly, this trait can be both beneficial and destructive for companies.
Researchers have identified leaders whose narcissism is helpful to their organization as being "constructive" narcissistic leaders, while those who are unhelpful have been described as "reactive."
A constructive leader might use their narcissism for positive effect -- as their unwavering belief and ability to work with others can lead to great success for organizations.
But a reactive leader can be damaging for an organization's performance -- as they are consumed by feelings of envy and a desire for revenge, and obsess over short term victories over rivals rather than focusing on the larger picture.
But while in the past, academics have tended to view both of these traits as belonging to different kinds of leader, Professor Stein has put forward the view that someone can be both.
He says a leader who previously showed "constructive" characteristics can actually turn to "reactive" traits when the chips are down.
He argues that, when everything is going well for the company, constructive leaders can gratify themselves that this success is largely due to them -- and they deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.
But he adds that when there is a downturn for the organization, it can trigger a transformation in the narcissistic leader.
They begin to blame everyone else for the problems facing the company, and become obsessed with seeking revenge on those who they feel have harmed the organization, rather than dealing with the real-life problems facing the company.
As a result, the organization's problems grow -- although, Professor Stein argues, the narcissistic boss will accept no responsibility for the company's failure.
Professor Stein said: "Finding out who are constructive and who are reactive narcissistic leaders -- and why -- has long been the 'holy grail' of research in this field. My work takes this debate into new territory because it suggests that a single leader may have both characteristics, and that constructive narcissistic leaders may turn reactive when there is a downturn in the business environment.
"These findings provide a serious warning that some constructive narcissistic leaders may be 'incubating' problems that only emerge when the chips are down."
Since his arrival at the University of Leicester in 2010, Professor Stein has given keynote addresses at conferences in Oxford, London, Roskilde, Limerick, Milan and Turin, and now in Athens.
- M. Stein. When Does Narcissistic Leadership Become Problematic? Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers. Journal of Management Inquiry, 2013; 22 (3): 282 DOI: 10.1177/1056492613478664
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