Narcissism sells in our culture, but serves poorly in the long run

Jana Wilhelm
Jana Wilhelm

We are proud parents of military sons and are still hoping for their next commander-in-chief to be strategically focused and show presidential bearing. We continue to be disappointed and presented papers at the April 2016 Society for the Advancement of Management national conference to hopefully help find sustainable leadership.

We recognize that extreme competitiveness is creating an unforgiving behavior of self-contained individualism to achieve success. Our candidates’ value being right all the time and hide weak or soft behaviors that might compromise their perceived strength or decisiveness.

At least one candidate has been described as a “narcissist-in-chief.” Like so many other candidates, he is driven by arrogance, self-absorbing thought and an egoistic need for power and admiration. Research has shown that such destructive narcissists lack enduring values, are easily bored and often change course.

Such narcissism is a slippery slope that is increasingly threatening human cooperation and survival. When combined with Machiavellianism and sub-clinical psychopathy, it becomes the Dark Triad of toxic leaders, which is decidedly non-presidential but can propel them to the nomination.

Narcissists seek leadership positions and enjoy being the center of attention. They view themselves as special, with a strong need for power and the charisma to persuade others to reach goals, even if for selfish gains. Hence they are motivational experts, at least in the short run.

Constructive narcissists present inspirational visions, generate new goals and map out new avenues. They have visions to change the world and are independent thinking and risk-taking, alert to threats and have voracious learning, combined with a sense of humor. That inspires us and not just sucks us in.

Americans in our media-based culture are becoming more narcissistic and less altruistic, even though a balance is needed for emotional health. Destructive narcissism makes us incapable of engaging in sharing, support and mutuality with others.

We tested a model of destructive narcissism composed of Machiavellianism, plus pettiness and inflexibility and minus friendliness and moderation. This did not predict U.S. presidential historical performance rankings. However, our independent model of productive or “presidential” narcissism, composed of forcefulness, achievement drive, wit, intellectual brilliance and poise and polish strongly predicted success in office.

It apparently helps presidents focus on both sustainable social and strategic intelligence. They can better assess weaknesses in their ideas and put safeguards in place. They are charismatic with disciplined forms of thinking and less manipulation.

Narcissism is a double-edged sword. We need to have all of our presidential candidates demonstrate their productive narcissism and desire for achievement over power. However, excessive grandiosity, ego inflation and hyper-competitiveness depress followers and achievement in the long-run.

Our second paper tested whether two forms of strategic thinking predicted presidential success.

High integrative complexity enables leaders to accept uncertainty and have the ability to synthesize opposing viewpoints and integrate differing opinions. This is the polar opposite of all-or-nothing judgments wherein leaders possess a general inability or unwillingness to accept uncertainty and divergent viewpoints.

This is similar to authoritarianism or closed-mindedness which occurs under conditions of increasing stress, and appears increasingly prevalent in America. Integrative complexity, on the other hand, is related to friendliness, the affiliation motive, extraversion, wittiness and flexibility.

The tragedy of our nation is that presidents start out fairly high in integrative complexity but recognize that it is too cerebral a style for the general population. Those presidents who reduced their integrative complexity significantly were more likely to get re-elected. Apparently open-mindedness can be scary for much of the population and seen as less decisive.

Authoritarians do not like it and their number is increasing along with inequality. Integrative complexity draws from many reservoirs of knowledge to create well-rounded and balanced, yet loose, conclusions. This renders them easily attacked by pundits. People are apparently less ready for integrative complexity and the leaders who show it. The Economist in 2012 stated “. . . America has a unique distaste for evidence.”

Presidential debates reflect attention to unchecked sound bites over facts. Inaccurate and negative campaigns seem to be successful. The resultant misinformation facilitates stagnation or slowing of U.S. global competitiveness. This may be assured if authoritarian minds continue to enfeeble the cognitive and integrative complexity necessary for strategic and entrepreneurial thinking.

Paul Wilhelm is an adjunct professor at Sullivan University; Jana Wilhelm is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky. They live in Frankfort.