Narcissistic Leaders Can Use Humility to Succeed

Topic(s): engagement, leadership, performance, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2015)
Article: Leader Narcissism and Follower Outcomes: The Counterbalancing Effect of Leader Humility
Authors: B.P. Owens, A.S. Wallace, D.A. Waldman
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Are narcissistic leaders good for business? Are they good for employees? This is a difficult question to answer, especially considering that research has found mixed results. Narcissistic people may be bold risk-takers with supreme confidence and unshakeable vision. This sounds like the kind of person we might want leading. On the other hand, they have personal grandiosity, a feeling of superiority, and the constant need for admiration. Perhaps we do not want this person in charge. Fortunately, new research (Owens, Wallace, & Waldman, 2015) helps us resolve this dilemma. They found that narcissism can be good for leadership, but only when it is tempered with a healthy dose of humility.


The authors of this study say that research typically explores personality traits, such as narcissism, by themselves. That is to say, most research asks a very straightforward question: Is this particular personality type good or bad? But that is not how things work in the real world. People do not simply belong to a single category of personality. Instead, a given personality trait is just one of many traits that are all mixed together to form the basis for how a person will act. This might explain some of the conflicting research about narcissism, say the authors. Narcissism might work for some people but not for others; it depends on the other personality characteristics of a person.


In this study, the authors considered leader humility along with narcissism. How do these two traits interact to predict leadership success? At first glance, it may seem that humility and narcissism cannot coexist. We do not usually think that narcissistic people are capable of expressing humility. But the authors caution not to make this mistake. They say that these two personality traits are not related (their data also back up this assertion). Humility really means admitting to mistakes or shortcomings, while also highlighting the strengths and successes of other people. If you think about it, narcissistic people should still be capable of behaving this way, despite possessing an inflated sense of self-worth. If so, how do the two different personality traits interact to predict leadership?


In general, the authors found that narcissistic leaders are associated with improved leadership, but only when these narcissists also have humility. Specifically, when narcissism was mixed with humility, leaders were perceived as more effective, had more engaged followers, and had higher performing followers. The authors explain that when a person has narcissism and humility, they have a unique blend of traits that can lead to success. In this situation, narcissism can provide bold confidence, while humility can make sure the uglier parts of narcissism remain checked.


This study discovers a possible antidote to the narcissistic personality. As strange as it may sound, humility might allow narcissistic people to maximize their leadership potential, and take advantage of the “good” parts of narcissism. The authors note that this finding might help explain some of the conflicting advice given to leaders. Leaders may be told to act boldly and confidently, but also humbly and equitably. This directive is less paradoxical in light of these findings. Leaders are capable of taking the inherent benefits of their natural disposition, while bettering themselves with an effortful attempt to “smooth out the edges.” By developing a little humility, narcissistic leaders give themselves the best chance of improving work outcomes. In fact, they will probably also receive credit for doing so. And wouldn’t the narcissistic person be interested in that?


Owens, B. P., Wallace, A. S., & Waldman, D. A. (2015). Leader narcissism and follower outcomes: The counterbalancing effect of leader humility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(4), 1203-1213.