And yet, there is no shortage of examples to illustrate the cultural appeal of narcissistic antiheroes, whether fictional (Walter White of Breaking Bad; Batman, and James Bond), all-too real (Silvio Berlusconi, Kanye West, and too many professional athletes to name), or a mix of both, such as the so-called Wolf of Wall Street. We are attracted to them despite their self-absorption — or perhaps, even because of it, says Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in HBR.
After decades of scientific research, psychologists have begun to deconstruct the seductive power of narcissists, explaining the precise mechanisms underlying their charm and ability to get ahead in all domains of life. Here are the key findings:
1. Narcissists are masterful impression managers: Thanks largely to their intense self-obsession and self-adulation, narcissists excel at managing initial impressions. They care a lot about their appearance and dress to impress, which signals status and makes them attractive. Unsurprisingly, narcissists perform well on interviews and they are excellent social networkers – you can even spot them by their social media activity (e.g., more Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or a higher Klout score).
2. Narcissists manipulate credit and blame in their favour: Through a mix of shameless self-promotion and a guilt-free, Machiavellian agenda, narcissists are quick to take credit for others’ achievements and blame colleagues and subordinates for their own failures. When things go wrong or they make mistakes, they deny or distort information and ‘rewrite history’ in order to avoid getting blamed.” What makes narcissists so effective at this is their complete conviction that they are actually special. Such delusions of grandeur allow narcissists to be more effective manipulators than individuals who are politically savvy but inhibited by their inability to distort reality or morality in their favour. It is always easier to fool others when you have already fooled yourself; it is always harder to feel guilty when you think you are innocent.
3. Narcissists fit conventional stereotypes of leadership: Because of their ability to accumulate power and influence, narcissists enjoy a prominent spot in laypeople’s views about leadership. However, the idea that leaders must be overconfident, charismatic, or selfish in order to be effective is in stark contrast with reality. Yes, these characteristics help them emerge as leaders, but they are also the cause of their dishonest and incompetent behaviours once they get to the top. Whether in sports, business, education or politics, effective leadership requires building high-performing teams and, when it comes to that, the critical ingredients for success are competence rather than confidence, altruism rather than egotism, and integrity rather than charisma. In other words, the real essence of good leadership is the exact opposite of what the Hollywood version of leadership implies. Until we understand this, we will unfortunately continue to invite narcissists to the top while overlooking more competent and healthier alternatives. In Eastern and collectivistic cultures narcissism rates are lower because society condemns it – we should follow that model in the West.
Importantly, there are different degrees of narcissism and, though we tend to use the term categorically, it is more appropriate to refer to people as either more or less narcissistic. In fact, some people may display relatively benign levels of narcissism, while others may resemble true psychopaths.
So, when dealing with charismatic individuals, a good rule of thumb is to delay making decisions — whether to hire that person, promote them, or take them on as clients — until you work out who they really are. Not all charismatic people are narcissistic, but many narcissists are charismatic, and the more charismatic they are, the more time it takes to spot them.