Are great leaders born or made? Many of the greatest leaders in history have engaging personalities and are thought of as ‘natural’ leaders. Think Napoleon Bonaparte, Bill Clinton, and Steve Jobs.
All of these leaders have become household names and created enormous opportunities for their empires, countries, and companies. They were all undoubtedly outstanding and high performing leaders. But they also all had (… have) a healthy dollop of a particular personality trait that is sometimes frowned upon. Narcissism!
Narcissists – so named after the mythical Greek son of gods who fell in love with a reflection of himself in a pool and died rather than leave the poolside – are not all bad. Most psychology textbooks suggest that they suffer from superiority, and explain that they are exhibitionists, exploitative, vain, and have an excessive sense of entitlement.
However, as leaders they have many redeeming qualities. For a start, they are charismatic, and can motivate people and generate scores of followers. Unfortunately, they are also sensitive to criticism, poor listeners, lack empathy, and intensely competitive to a point where it can be damaging.
In some research that I recently completed with my team, we explored how companies listed on the Singapore Exchange and run by narcissistic CEOs perform. It has been demonstrated by a group of leading psychologists in the USA that the extent to which a person uses the first person plural (I, me, my) versus the extent to which they use first person plural (we, us, our) is a strong indicator of the extent to which they are narcissistic.
What we did in our study, was use the latest manuscripts of companies in the Straits Times index and examined their earnings calls. Earnings calls follow earnings releases by companies and usually involve the CEO’s candidly answering questions posed by analysts.
This enabled us to assess the candid use of first person singular to plural and score the CEOs on narcissism. We then took the companies, and divided them into two groups depending on the narcissism score of the CEO – low narcissism and high narcissism. We then calculated the average performance of the two groups of companies over the last three years.
Our research was consistent with results of our research for other countries that we have studies – Australia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Companies run by CEOs with high narcissism underperformed companies run by CEOs with low narcissism. For Singapore-listed companies, the average underperformance over the three-year period was approximately 3 percent per annum – this is the price of narcissism!
While the tendency is for companies run by narcissism to underperform, this is not always the case. One of the tennets of management education is that people can be trained in leadership. One of the ways of doing this is to help aspiring leaders to become “self aware” of their strengths and weaknesses as a leader and train them to improve.
So, an individual who is aware of their narcissism – which also has some strengths – can be trained to manage the weaknesses of their personality in leadership. In this way, a leader with a high EQ can “break out” of their personality and become an outstanding leader. That way, even companies with narcissistic leaders can outperform!
Going back to my original question: Are leaders born or made? The answer has to be, well, a bit of both.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Professor Alex Frino is the Deputy Vice- Chancellor (Global Strategy) and a Professor of Economy at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is a distinguished economist who fosters the interaction of business with academe. Professor Frino is an alumnus of UOW and Cambridge University, and is also a former Fulbright Scholar.