The narcissistic CEO: Nightmare boss or company savior?

My first encounter with a narcissistic boss was early in my career as a newspaper reporter. At first I thought he directed his horrible behavior at me because I was young and I was his first hire. Now I realize he was just an egotistical jerk, who acted like one because he could, thrived on power, thought he was always right and didn't care about the damage he caused. 

What got me through that horrible experience was the secret hope that one day I'd be at a different job and in a position to hire him--and that his resume would come across my desk. Sometimes I imagined that I'd just throw it in the trash. Other times I fantasized that I'd have the human resources director schedule an interview so I could see the look on his face when he arrived at my office.

Over the years I've encountered more people in leadership positions with similar personalities. I suspect you know the type I'm talking about: They love the sound of their own voices, make unilateral decisions without soliciting feedback, put down others to feel better about themselves, and in some cases take credit for others' work.

But depending on who you listen to--especially if it was the boss-from-hell described above--you may think that leaders with inflated self-images are just what your organization needs. After all, these individuals are brilliant, confident ... and clearly know more than you do. 

Not so fast. As FierceHealthcare reported this week, new research finds that the best leaders are those who have "moderate levels of narcissism." And those who fall on either side of the extreme--too much or too little ego--actually are poor leaders.

Narcissists "are usually very good in short-term situations when meeting people for the first time. But the impression they create quickly falls apart," study co-author Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told UNLToday. "You soon realize that they are nowhere as good or as smart as they say they are."

So while narcissistic CEOs may make a great first impression and even emerge as leaders, they aren't necessarily successful.

"Narcissists tend to be extraverted, and this is leading to the positive relationship between narcissism and leader emergence," lead study author Emily Grijalva, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, told the University's News Bureau.

"But you have to keep in mind that although narcissists are likely to emerge as a group leader, over time the more negative aspects of narcissism tend to emerge."

These negative characteristics include "being exploitative, arrogant and even tyrannical," she added.

In some cases, the study found, narcissists may function better in certain leadership situations than others. Harms and Grijalva say more research is needed to determine which narcissistic tendencies produce harmful outcomes and which are beneficial.

So where does that leave your organization, especially given that so many hospitals will experience CEO turnover in the upcoming year? What should you look for in a leader to guide you through the financial challenges ahead? And what steps should you take to measure a potential candidate's level of narcissism?

Harms suggested in the Washington Post that if you want to screen for narcissism when hiring for a CEO, first conduct an internal evaluation to determine the optimal level for your organization. Then you can have candidates take a personality assessment to determine where they rate.

"What rates as average levels of ego and confidence at a hospital, for instance, might be very different than at a Wall Street bank, Harms told the Washington Post. "A narcissist who's not very smart or hard-working is a disaster," Harms says. "But a narcissist who's really smart and really hard working could end up being someone brilliant like Steve Jobs."

In my case, my former narcissistic boss wasn't as smart as he thought he was and was indeed a disaster. Eventually he was asked to leave the company, while I stayed on. And my dream of one day being in a position to hire him? It came true--sort of. Years later when I became a member of my new company's leadership team, his resume came across the president's desk. Because she noticed that his experience included a stint at the same company I once worked for, she asked me what I thought of him.

So I told her. And then she threw his resume in her trash. - Ilene (@FierceHealth)

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