The Danger of Narcissistic CEOs – Especially During a Crisis

ceo leading meeting

CEOs and other high level executives play a critical role in shaping an organization’s direction and response to a crisis, and this has been especially true in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. New research (Kim et al., 2021) examines how CEO narcissism may contribute to less than desirable behavior from middle managers.  


The researchers conducted two studies to test their hypotheses. In study 1, 200 middle managers from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom participated in a total of four surveys. Results indicated that as managers’ perceptions of CEO narcissism increased, so did their own feelings of uncertainty. Additionally, the relationship between perceptions of CEO narcissism and uncertainty was stronger when managers perceived their businesses to be under threat. Further, perceived uncertainty subsequently predicted increases in two leadership behaviors—laissez-faire leadership (withdrawal from leadership duties) and impression management behaviors (an effort to socially influence others by generating one’s desired image in the eyes of others). 

In study 2, participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions. Participants read a business scenario in which CEO narcissism and business threat were manipulated to be either high or low. Then participants rated the CEO’s leadership. Results indicated that when business threat was high, participants in the high CEO narcissism condition reported lower CEO leadership scores compared to those in the low CEO narcissism condition. 


Results from this study show that CEO narcissism may make middle managers feel more uncertain, and these feelings of uncertainty may affect subsequent leadership behavior. It is critical that CEOs monitor their language and behavior during a crisis, as behavior that appears narcissistic may have far-reaching consequences that trickle-down throughout the organization. 

Kim, J., Lee, H. W., Gao, H., & Johnson, R. E. (2021). When CEOs are all about themselves: Perceived CEO narcissism and middle managers’ workplace behaviors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(9), 1283-1298.