Here's why narcissists become leaders, according to two psychologists

Psychologists W. Keith Campbell, (Ph.D.) and Carolyn Crist explain why narcissists rise to power and how to make sure your support is going to someone making effective, positive change.

man standing in front of curtains

Why do narcissists rise to power?

Credit: Wedding and lifestyle on Shutterstock
  • Pathological narcissism is rare. It impacts an estimated 1 percent of the population.
  • Narcissism is tied closely to leadership emergence, as narcissists tend to initially be confident, charismatic, and charming. Leadership is a natural goal for narcissists because it feeds their motivational goals of status, power, and attention.
  • Psychologists W. Keith Campbell, (Ph.D.) and Carolyn Crist explain why narcissists rise to power.

The term narcissist is commonly used to refer to people who appear to be arrogant or entitled. It's easy to refer to someone who talks a lot about themselves or their accomplishments as a narcissist, but what does the word really mean?

Narcissism is viewed on a spectrum. The trait itself is normally characterized by people scoring near the middle of the spectrum and a few rare individuals at either end.

How do you score narcissism?

The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (referred to by physicians as the NPI) was developed by Robert Raskin and Calvin S. Hall in 1979. Scores on this scale range from 0-40, with the average tending to fall in the low-mid teens, according to Psychology Today.

The difference between pathological narcissism and narcissism is important.

Pathological narcissism (which is actually a personality disorder referred to as narcissistic personality disorder) is rare. It impacts an estimated 1 percent of the population. It is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention/admiration, troubled relationships (because of this), and an astounding lack of empathy for others.

This disorder is suspected when a person's narcissistic traits (listed above) begin to impair their daily functions.

Why do narcissists become leaders?

"Leadership is a natural goal for narcissists because it feeds their motivational goals of status, power, and attention." - Psychology Today

Leadership can be a complex topic to discuss, as the psychology of leadership can be classified in two distinct ways: leadership emergence (the rise to power) and leadership effectiveness (what happens once the person has power).

Narcissists initially appear charming and confident, making them great for leadership emergence.

Narcissism is tied closely to leadership emergence, as narcissists tend to initially be confident, charismatic, and charming (then later perceived as vain or arrogant). However, narcissism may not be great for effective leadership. Once someone rises to power and gains trust, it doesn't always mean they are going to be effective at being a leader to those people.

Many positions are self-elected, and narcissists will jump at this chance.

Education, politics, and businesses are typically set up to allow potential leaders to self-elect and move forward with their own goals. Even when leaders are selected by committees or groups, they may be more inclined to go with a high-visibility, confident, high-profile candidate over someone who exudes leadership qualities in a more muted way.

Many systems favor loud, narcissistic individuals over quiet, effective leaders.

"Sometimes it feels like our systems are set up to select these narcissistic individuals," explain W. Keith Campbell, (Ph.D.) and Carolyn Crist in Psychology Today. "The democratic election process can also feel like a popularity contest, where the biggest ego wins. Even this year, candidates have created polarized followings on social media."

People desire a leader who promises stability and direction during challenging times.

Narcissists who come to power during chaotic and difficult times often quickly gain the support of their followers because they make promises of stability and have a clear direction in mind. The problem with this is that it can lead to detrimental leaders, such as Adolf Hitler. Hitler rose to power during a time when Germany's economy was struggling to recover after the First World War, promising to rebuild and strengthen the country.

Narcissistic leaders may be able to temporarily convince you everything is being handled effectively.

Followers who believe their leader acts in their best interest are more likely to be happy with that leadership. When you have a leader who is repeating over and over that they are making effective, meaningful, positive changes (even if they aren't), people are more inclined to believe it.

"We've seen this over the years at many levels of the government—from the presidential suite all the way down to the local mayor's office," explains Campbell and Crist.

How do we avoid electing and supporting narcissistic, ineffective leaders in the future?

Campbell and Crist have a few ideas about that in their book "The New Science of Narcissism" - the main takeaway being this: "Our best bet is to watch how they act and treat others and then respond accordingly when they look for the next position of power."

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

These are the world’s greatest threats in 2021

We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.

Luis Ascui/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.

Keep reading Show less

Columbia study finds new way to extract energy from black holes

A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surprising Science
  • In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
  • A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
  • The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

Scroll down to load more…