Leading Isn’t About Info

The study recruited 150 participants and divided them into groups of three. One person was randomly assigned to be the group’s leader; all were told they could contribute advice, but that the leader was responsible for making the decision. Then they undertook a group task: choosing a job candidate. Of 45 items of information about the candidate, some were given to all three, and some to only one of the participants. … Group members rated the most narcissistic leaders as most effective. But … the groups led by the greatest egotists chose the worse candidate for the job. … “The narcissistic leaders … inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism.” … Good leaders facilitate communication by asking questions and summarizing the conversation—something narcissists are too self-involved to do. (more; HT Karl Mattingly)

I predict that as the above result becomes more widely known, we will not much change our tendency to choose egotists as leaders. Yes the ability to get subordinates to reveal unusual info is valuable to the organization as a whole, but today this ranks pretty low among the many competing considerations in choosing a leader, and that probably won’t change much in the foreseeable future.

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  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    Echoing a similar point made by Arnold Kling a while back, it’s weird that a firm might hire a narcissist bad leader, because the firms would presumably hurt their competitive edge. maybe that is slowly happening?

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    I think Robin is correct, that understanding that narcissists make bad decisions won’t keep people from selecting them as leaders. I think because of another “feature” of narcissism.


    It is much easier to “win” by cheating that it is by actually performing better than your opponent. Choosing a leader who is willing to cheat his/her way to the top can be a “winning” strategy for a small group. It is a disaster for the whole group because the positive effects of cheating only come with greater negative effects on the larger society.

    Individual communists in the USSR could “win” by cheating, but the whole USSR could not sustain itself because of the adverse effects of that cheating.

    China is starting to learn this lesson. Corruption among Chinese government officials is rampant and leads to large scale disasters (as when high speed trains fail due to shoddy construction due to corruption).

    The US hasn’t learned this lesson yet. The financial crisis was due to cheating; misrepresenting low value securities as high value. The AGW debate is dominated by cheating; non-scientists misrepresenting what the science of AGW actually says. The political debate on the budget is dominated by cheating; misrepresenting that the current unemployment crisis is due to taxes that are too high and too much government debt, even as interest rates on government debt are at historic lows. Inflation protected government debt is actually negative.

    • jim

      I’d say the AGW is dominated by cheating on the other end. By those on the Big Green gravy train and the eco-religious Left misrepresenting the certainty of the science, the rigor of their computer models, the likelihood of economic harm, the usefulness of their proposed solutions. Not to mention, of course, the fudged data and lack of openness.

      But almost by definition, any prominent debate in society will be led by lying, cheating narcissists — on both sides of the debate.

      In fact, your whole comment strikes me as that of a narcissist ideologue. Someone with no shame in lying to achieve their goal and “win”.

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        I’m not a leftist. From my point of observation, there are careful expert participants in the discussion who think the balance of evidence strongly suggests AGW is a problem. I see no careful expert participant who think AGW isn’t a problem.

        Similarly, there are careful, expert participants who think the basic financial solution to our current state is more stimulus (job creation focus seems more suspect and political to me). I see no careful, expert participants who think the answer is immediately shrinking the size of government or a balance budget ammendment.

        So I think claiming that there are always “narcissist ideologues on both sides of a debate” is even-handed but an unhelpful truism in this case.

  • Marty

    Don’t see a link/ref to this “study” ?

    From what population/group were these ‘participants’ selected ? (was it random selection?) No control-group used ?

    How did Group members determine the “most narcissistic leaders” ?

    Seems a very casual, non-scientific study… from which no general conclusions can be drawn whatsoever.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Not to be an apologist for charismatics (narcissism or egoism is a bit imprecise, since I think of leaders who “get subordinates to reveal unusual info is valuable to the organization as a whole” as process competence narcissists) but there’s more to human organizational success than aptitude at making the better of two decisions. I suspect efficient domination is important for relatively uncohesive agents like ourselves. That the greater dominator can dominate lesser dominators comes off a bit like a heckler’s problem, but if most of the population consists of aspirational dominators, efficient dominators may be doing the lord’s work (literally?) in helping us overcome some nasty coordination problems.

    • michael vassar

      I mostly agree with this point. However, my general take on things is that most of the population consists of people who don’t want to do anything. Leadership mostly consists of inspiring initiative.

  • http://spankingnotions.net Tadashi

    The study would be far more meaningful if the teams repeated the task several times with a performance assessment each time. I highly doubt that team members would hold poor performing leaders in high regard for long. All this study seems to say is that with limited objective information, people will make decisions based on their instincts.

    • Unnamed

      Good point. There’s a tendency for narcissists to make a good first impression but to become less liked over time.