Not everyone likes to be a subordinate and take orders but we are more willing to take orders from some leaders than from others. Some bosses despite our open mindedness and willingness to give one hundred percent, still behave as plain ole jerks. Jerk bosses are popularized and made notorious by the media through Leona Helmsley like scandals and movies such as Horrible Bosses. Perhaps we have led ourselves into believing these boss types are corrupted by the power given to them. Research suggests however that bosses don’t necessarily become jerks but rather jerks are promoted to bosses.
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, says that people with narcissistic, self-centered and confrontational traits are more likely to become leaders. Emily Grijalva, assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management, explains why such people move upward. She performed a meta analysis of 18 studies involving 30,000 test subjects and found that narcissism is positively associated with attaining leadership roles. She explains, “When you first meet a narcissist they tend to make a positive impression on you. So if you were to meet someone narcissistic at a party you would probably think they were entertaining or attractive,” but they may also have a lot of, “extremely toxic interpersonal characteristics such as being exploitative, manipulative, arrogant.” Grijalva further explains that narcissists perhaps more so than others, are going to portray themselves as leaders but as Jeanne Branthover, managing partner at Boyden Global Executive Search, points out, narcissists aren’t imposters but truly have bought in to who they are.
Fred Kiel, founder of KRW International, a firm that develops leadership inside companies, explains that there is a bad notion in the business world that the most effective leader is a “hard-nosed” driver. Someone who takes action and gets things done is good despite their rough treatment of others. He notes that this prevalent business school philosophy, embedded into our psyches, could further promote the idea that jerk behavior is desirable.
Are jerk leaders effective though? Kiel examined the lives of 84 CEOs and compared them according to a suite of traits he developed. He found that high-character leaders who exhibit traits such as honesty, forgiveness and keeping promises, brought in five times the return on assets to the bottom line than did low-character CEOs.
Emily Grijalva analyzed twenty-six studies across 5,000 participants and found that individuals with high levels of narcissism were ineffective leaders, however her analysis also showed that individuals with low levels of narcissism were ineffective. The thought is that individuals with low levels of narcissism are insecure and hesitant. The ineffective leadership ability of mildly narcissistic people may have promoted the belief that narcissism was a desired leadership trait, but Girjalva’s research reveals individuals with only average amounts demonstrate much greater effectiveness than those exhibiting either high or low narcissistic tendencies.
Narcissists, aside from having poor management skills, may hire managers just like them which exacerbates the problem of ineffective leadership in the managerial ranks of an organization. A fraternity of jerks at the top makes people miserable to the point of leaving. Inverse to this, narcissists may also hire people who prefer being subordinate and bossed around. Such hiring does not improve the situation. Left unchecked by subordinates willing to challenge them, the overly confident narcissist boss may make reckless decisions.
As Dr. Chamorro-Premuzi points out, “In general, bosses perform pretty poorly. If you look at large corporations in the past five years on average they have all fired 15% to 20% of senior leaders.”
Remember, even if someone dresses nicely, exudes success, charisma, confidence and a can-do (possibly bombastic) attitude, they may not be presidential….er, I mean managerial material. They may be a narcissist.