Presidential Hubris: How Narcissism Influences Leadership

Imagine a world were the President of the United States uses the office to do whatever he wants. Whether he’s sacrificing the truth, ignoring basic ethics, indulging in harmful measures of entitlement, or abusing underlings and colleagues, we are all treated as pawns on his ascent into power. Of course, I’m referring to Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards (why, who did you think I was talking about?).

In Frank Underwood’s time on television, he has been diagnosed with numerous psychological disorders. One that seems fitting for today’s political climate are his narcissistic tendencies.

Narcissism involves excessive self-aggrandizement, a grandiose view of one’s talents and achievements, and a preoccupation with fantasies of power. These predilections result in extreme selfishness and a shallowness of emotion where the individual maintains a strong distain towards criticism, is unwilling to compromise, and is over-reliant on the need for praise (as a note, we’re still discussing President Underwood).

The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties – never regret.—Frank Underwood

The indicators of narcissism are often confused with those of self-esteem. Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, makes the distinction that while people high in self-esteem value individual achievement, they also value their relationships. Narcissists, on the other hand, are “missing that piece about valuing, caring and their relationships, so they tend to lack empathy, they have poor relationship skills.” They are likewise linked to materialism and a greater focus on money, fame, and image.

If narcissism sounds like a leadership style you would enjoy, the research is clear that it is ineffective. One study I read on Knowtro found that narcissism decreases task performance by almost 10%. According to the authors, these behaviors have a significantly negative impact on core job responsibilities, team performance, and promotions. Another study concluded that narcissism increases workplace deviance by up to 24%.

But, you may be thinking, aren’t most CEOs associated with being narcissistic? The short answer is, “No.” Sure, there have been articles written about particular individuals, but research does not support the argument that the majority of CEOs are any more self-centered then the rest of us. In fact, the Center for Executive Succession found that only 5% of leaders can be classified as narcissists. At the same time, 60% were described as being high in humility. For you math folks, this means CEOs were 12 times more likely to be humble than narcissistic.

The American people don’t know what’s best for them…I do.—Frank Underwood

Now that we’ve determined how narcissism is 1) not desirable and 2) not a component of success, it’s time for the difficult question: Are you a narcissist? As a hint, if you are offended by my merely asking the question, you are in danger. Those leaning towards narcissism are reluctant to admit they may have such a flaw, as doing so would conflict with their self-image of perfection.

To gain a more unbiased perspective of ourselves, psychiatrist and author Mark Goulston has a quick self-assessment. Called the Narcissist Inventory, answer the ten questions below using a 1-3 scale (1 = rarely; 2 = sometimes; 3 = frequently):

  1. How often does the person need to be right at all costs?
  2. How often does the person act impatient with you for no good reason?
  3. How often does the person interrupt you in the middle of what you’re saying, and yet take offense if you interrupt?
  4. How often does the person expect you to drop whatever you’re thinking about and listen to him or her — and does the person take offense when you expect the same in return?
  5. How often does the person talk more than he or she listens?
  6. How often does the person say “Yes, but,” “That’s not true,” “No,” “However,” or “Your problem is”?
  7. How often does the person resist and resent doing something that matters to you, just because it’s inconvenient?
  8. How often does the person expect you to cheerfully do something that’s inconvenient for you?
  9. How often does the person expect you to accept behavior that he or she would refuse to accept from you?
  10. How often does the person fail to say “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “Congratulations,” or “Excuse me” when it’s called for?

To score your inventory, add up the total:

10-16 = The person is cooperative

17-23 = The person is argumentative

24-30 = The person is a narcissist

The President (Underwood, obviously) is unable to feel sympathy, remorse, or a genuine connection to others. His thirst for power is too overwhelming to allow such interference. And I doubt he’s interested in or able to change. We don’t have to be stuck is such a caustic trap as the President (still Underwood). There may be instances where we demonstrate a few narcissist traits, but this does not make us narcissist. What matters more is that we remain vigilantly aware of these tendencies so we can identify them before they influence our decision making and wreak havoc on our reputation. It’s the difference between suffering the inevitably bleak fate of Frank Underwood and being a real life leader.