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The prevalence of narcissist CEOs

Narcissistic CEOs harm their teams by creating environments where leadership team members fail to co-operate

We often see CEOs portrayed as arrogant and narcissistic authoritarians intoxicated with power and running roughshod over everyone in their way. Usually these stereotypes emerge from anecdotes about individual CEOs who displayed such opportunism and hubris that their behaviour led to organisational failure. However, can we legitimately stereotype all CEOs based on the actions of a few? As little good empirical data exists regarding narcissism and CEOs, the 2016 HR@Moore Survey of CHROs sought to shed more rigorous light on the question.

We had 126 CHROs report the extent to which they agreed with how well 19 different statements described their CEO’s leadership style. Ten of the behaviours involved narcissism using a classic narcissism scale and the rest addressed humility. We also asked about the team dynamics among the executive leadership team (ELT), how the ELT viewed the CEO, how the CEO viewed the board, and both the CEO’s and the board’s commitment to CEO succession. Our results boil down to a classic good news/bad news scenario.

First, the good news. Narcissist CEOs are not nearly as prevalent as one might expect from reading the popular press. We found that only 5% could clearly be classified as narcissists. In contrast, 60% were described as high in humility. So, in other words, CEOs were 12 times more likely to be humble than narcissistic.

Now the bad news. Narcissism in the CEO role drives a whole host of dysfunctional outcomes. In terms of ELT dynamics, narcissism was unrelated to the extent to which the team agreed with the firm’s strategy and goals.

However, it was strongly negatively correlated with the ELT dimensions of camaraderie and trust. Thus, narcissistic CEOs harm their teams by creating environments and dynamics where ELT members fail to co-operate with each other, hold grudges, fail to respect each other’s competence, and do not display integrity with one another.

In general, we found that, according to CHROs, members of the ELT tend to have positive views of the CEO. However, this is not the case for narcissistic ones. The negative correlation indicated that ELTs with narcissistic CEOs feel less confidence in the CEO’s expertise, strategy, leadership style, and effectiveness. Interestingly this somewhat mirrors how CEOs view the board, with narcissistic CEOs having less respect for the board as a resource, feeling they have less confidence from the board, and evaluating the board as less effective.

Finally, narcissism seems to derail the CEO succession process. We asked CHROs to rate the CEO’s and the board’s involvement in CEO succession in terms of the extent to which they make it a priority, take ownership of it, review succession plans, meet with candidates, maintain objectivity, and focus on equal opportunity. Again, on average, both CEOs and boards seemed to score high. However, not so for narcissistic CEOs. The negative correlation suggested narcissistic CEOs put less emphasis on CEO succession, and are less focused on objectivity and equal opportunity in the process. Because boards ultimately bear the responsibility for choosing the next CEO this may not seem problematic. However, these effects bleed over into the board’s involvement. The analyses showed that narcissistic CEOs seemingly discourage boards from taking ownership of the process, placing high priority on it, and maintaining objectivity and equal opportunity.

So, the good news is that your organisation has only a one in 20 chance of having a narcissistic CEO. However, if your workplace is the unlucky one it may be time to move on – because chances are bad things are coming.

Patrick Wright is Thomas C Vandiver bicentennial chair and faculty director of the Center for Executive Succession in the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina