If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Margarita Mayo for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place.

Humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.

For example, one study examined 105 small-to-medium-sized companies in the computer software and hardware industry in the United Studies. The findings revealed that when a humble CEO is at the helm of a firm, its top management team is more likely to collaborate and share information, making the most of the firm’s talent.Another study showed that a leader’s humility can be contagious: when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behavior. A study of 161 teams found that employees following humble leaders were themselves more likely to admit their mistakes and limitations, share the spotlight by deflecting praise to others, and be open to new ideas, advice, and feedback.

Yet instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.The Greek word Kharisma means “divine gift,” and charisma is the quality of extraordinary charm, magnetism, and presence that makes a person capable of inspiring others with enthusiasm and devotion. German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as “of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of it, the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Research evidence on charismatic leadership reveals that charismatic people are more likely to become endorsed as leaders because of their high energy, unconventional behavior, and heroic deeds.While charisma is conductive to orchestrating positive large-scale transformations, there can be a “dark side” to charismatic leadership.

Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo describe it this way in their seminal book: “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.” A clinical study illustrates that when charisma overlaps with narcissism, leaders tend to abuse their power and take advantage of their followers. Another study indicates that narcissistic leaders tend to present a bold vision of the future, and this makes them more charismatic in the eyes of others.

Why are such leaders more likely to rise to the top? One study suggests that despite being perceived as arrogant, narcissistic individuals radiate “an image of a prototypically effective leader.” Narcissistic leaders know how to draw attention toward themselves. They enjoy the visibility. It takes time for people to see that these early signals of competence are not later realized, and that a leader’s narcissism reduces the exchange of information among team members and often negatively affects group performance.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Margarita Mayo (margaritamayo.com) is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IE Business School in Madrid. She was recently featured on the Thinkers50 Radar as one of 30 thought leaders to watch in 2017. Her new book, Yours Truly: How to Stay True to Your Authentic Self in Leadership and Life will be published by Bloomsbury in 1920.

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