“Hey, has anyone ever told you you’re a real narcissist?”
“Wow, thanks for the compliment!”
That’s because narcissism is unequivocally considered a negative personality trait. We need only look back to the origin of the word, the Greek myth of Narcissus, to see the long history of the association between narcissism and immoral behaviour:
Narcissus was a hunter known for his beauty, the son of a river god and a nymph. But all he had was contempt for those who loved him. One day the goddess Nemesis, seeing his behaviour, led him to a pool where he caught a glimpse of his own reflection and immediately fell in love. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost the will to live and died still staring at his reflection.
Hence the connotation behind narcissism, a fixation with oneself, has always carried very negative moral undertones. But is narcissism all bad? The field of personality psychology tells us that our traits manifest themselves on spectrums. It’s likely that everyone has a certain degree of narcissism in their personality. Insights from psychology are helping us understand this marginalized leadership trait and how we might be able to harness it for success.
In a recent study from The European Journal of Finance, researchers found that artists’ narcissism was positively correlated with the market performance of their artworks. Author Yi Zhou used the size of artists’ signatures as an indicator of how narcissistic they were likely to be, as signature size has been positively correlated with personality measures for narcissism. (How big is your John Hancock??)
Using a massive data set of over 400,000 artists, including the likes of Picasso, Dali, and Van Gogh, Zhou found that one standard deviation increase in narcissism increased the market price by 16 percent. The study also found that narcissistic artists held more solo and group exhibitions and sold larger paintings for more money than less narcissistic artists.
One important finding of the study that bucks the trend from previous studies of narcissism is the positive and significant relationship between the level of narcissism in an artist and the degree of admiration or recognition from the general public and art experts. Whereas in other studies researchers have found this to be a transient positive impression, Zhou found it to be very long lasting in artists. Finally, the study found that more narcissistic artists were actually more creative and productive.
The finding that narcissism is positively correlated with creativity, productivity, and market price, offers insightful implications for how leadership traits like narcissism could positively influence business performance.
So if narcissism has such a positive impact on what many businesses would consider to be some of their central KPIs, why don’t we max out on the most narcissistic employees we can find? Because there are many other leadership traits required for business success, and taking any one of them to an extreme is risky. Other study findings conclude that CEOs that are too narcissistic can be inclined to make rash decisions for a company because they are over-confident in their own decision-making abilities. Can you imagine hiring Picasso as your next creative director? He may have been a brilliant artist, but he thought of himself as much more than that. He was once quoted as saying: “God is really an artist, like me…I am God, I am God, I am God.”
A study from 2015 that summarizes much of the most significant psychological research on narcissism to date found that the worst leaders are those with either extremely high or extremely low levels of narcissism. You can imagine a leader with low narcissism being someone who you may not look up to or have much confidence in because they don’t seem to have much conviction in themselves. On the other end of the scale, a leader with high narcissism may seem self-obsessed and boastful, and may make risky decisions based on their own convictions rather than rational, logical deliberation. Either of these leaders would be hard to rally around and would likely upset the fine balance needed to achieve business success.
Steve Jobs is a great example of a leader who walked the fine balance of narcissism, often teetering on the edge of going just one step too far.
Psychological studies of narcissism in the workplace reveal import nuances for how to make use of the leadership trait successfully.
While the Greek myth of Narcissus has stood the test of time, it doesn’t give us the whole picture on narcissism. Narcissism can actually be a positive leadership trait when used in moderation in the right situations. Want more psychological insights that inform successful leadership strategies? Subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.