Do Narcissists Make Better Leaders?

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Co-founder and Training Director, High Conflict Institute. Bill is a lawyer, therapist, mediator, author and developer of the high conflict personality theory. California, USA

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the co-founder and Training Director of High Conflict Institute. He developed the High Conflict Personality theory (HCP Theory) and has become an international expert on managing disputes involving high conflict personalities and personality disorders. He provides training on this subject to lawyers, judges, mediators, managers, human resource professionals, businesspersons, healthcare administrators, college administrators, homeowners’ association managers, ombudspersons, law enforcement, therapists and others. He has been a speaker and trainer in over 30 U.S. states and 10 countries.

The world of business and leadership would seem to be dominated by narcissists, because of their ability to draw attention to themselves and to get people to follow them. After all, isn’t that the goal of marketing and business in our fast-paced world? Can the drive, showmanship and grand thinking of a narcissist actually be good for a business leader or political leader or any kind of leader?

Realistically speaking, the answer is No and here’s why:

  1. Narcissistic traits are dysfunctional. To truly be a narcissist means to have a problem; a persistent pattern of dysfunctional behaviors. A narcissist is more than self-centered, which is what people often think of. (Isn’t that charming, how he has to be the center of attention? No, that’s not a good sign as you’ll see below.) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association lists several specific traits of a narcissistic personality disorder. They include a lack of empathy, a pattern of exaggeration and grandiosity, interpersonal exploitation, fantasies of unlimited power over others and excessive demands for admiration. They are driven to be seen as superior, so they put other people down with insults and demeaning behavior to put themselves up.

  2. Their first impressions are great, but misleading. Narcissists are good at promoting themselves to those who don’t know them very well, and hiding the negative side of their personality for a while. They can tell the most grand and exciting stories of their past success, but they turn out to be great exaggerations. Their charm is almost irresistible and their grandiose plans often sound like what everyone has been looking for: a leader who can turn things around and shoot for the stars. But over time they turn out to be impulsive, lazy and take credit for other people’s work. People soon learn to resent them.

  3. They are preoccupied with themselves, not the business. Studies show that narcissists are not focused on the business, but rather focused on themselves. They talk about themselves all the time but often forget to talk about (or even think about) the organization and its goals. One common characteristic is their tendency to exploit others, so that they are often thinking about how to move up in the organization and possibly out to a higher status position with another organization. While moving up and sometimes out isn’t bad in itself, the problem is that they are always thinking like this rather than investing energy into really building the organization. They may be good at getting publicity, but do they use it to promote themselves or the business?

  4. They kick down and kiss up. They actually make terrible bosses for the people below them. This is because they use the employee to pick on and blame when things don’t go well; but then they steal the ideas and credit for what the employee has actually done. Employees may complain about this to others higher up in the organization. But that’s when the kissing up part comes in. Narcissists are good at making their own superiors think they are doing great, so when a complaint comes in it may be quickly disregarded. Since many employees are intimidated by the verbal insults and arrogance of a narcissist, they don’t speak up to higher-ups in the business. This reinforces the idea that the narcissist is doing fine, when he (or she) is not doing fine at all.

We see this dynamic in many cases of bullying and sexual harassment, where the organization has always protected the narcissist.

  1. They are showmen (and women) and not leaders. People often confuse a media presence with leadership skills. An image does not make a leader. In today’s world of sound bites and fleeting images, we start to lose our healthy skepticism. Narcissists are skilled at sounding like a leader using strong, dramatic statements, and looking like a leader with smart hand gestures. They may surround themselves with attractive people to enhance their image, but these don’t fit with the reality of their empty relationships. Instead of inspiring department heads and line employees with their leadership skills, they seek people who will listen to them go on and on about their own wonderful (but questionable) personal accomplishments. True leaders put the company and employees first in their thoughts and their public presentations, and work to build great teams instead of being preoccupied with individual superstars.

  2. They create instability and don’t last. Studies have found that narcissists make their companies have more dramatic ups and downs, with more publicly dramatic schemes, which overall is worse for the bottom line and public reputation. Think Enron, which rose dramatically then crashed and burned, reportedly with one or two narcissists at the top. Its easy to think of more. Narcissistic leaders can be overconfident, so they don’t last as long in their leadership positions as those who are less self-confident and therefore work harder.

  3. They don’t learn. This is often the most surprising quality of narcissists. While they talk a good talk, they don’t follow through and don’t seem to learn. This is a quality of all people with personality disorders: they have an enduring pattern of behavior that rarely changes in adulthood. They can look and act very well, but if they have a personality disorder it will show over time and especially under stress. Steve Jobs may be an example of a leader who many thought of as a narcissist, but who did learn and therefore was successful. He also created a good team around himself who he argued with but also listened to.

Leaders who are strong, confident and assertive with big plans can be very good. If they can learn, take feedback and self-correct as they go, then they aren’t narcissists. Narcissists reveal the above negative qualities over time and will cause more harm than good in the long run.


Bill Eddy is the Co-Founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute (www.HighConflictInstitute.com). He is also a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the author of several books including his latest: Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths—And How We Can Stop!

Co-founder and Training Director, High Conflict Institute. Bill is a lawyer, therapist, mediator, author and developer of the high conflict personality theory. California, USA

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the co-founder and Training Director of High Conflict Institute. He developed the High Conflict Personality theory (HCP Theory) and has become an international expert on managing disputes involving high conflict personalities and personality disorders. He provides training on this subject to lawyers, judges, mediators, managers, human resource professionals, businesspersons, healthcare administrators, college administrators, homeowners’ association managers, ombudspersons, law enforcement, therapists and others. He has been a speaker and trainer in over 30 U.S. states and 10 countries.

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