Superheroes too self-absorbed to lead in current climate

August 27, 2009

Flamboyant, arrogant vice-chancellors who are initially perceived as "heroic" or "visionary" may end up damaging their universities in the long term.

A study by Malcolm Higgs, professor of human resources management and organisational behaviour at the University of Southampton, found that, in business, the domineering behaviour of narcissistic managers often damages long-term performance.

Professor Higgs told Times Higher Education that his findings were also likely to apply to universities.

"What's interesting is that the damage doesn't occur immediately," he said. "When you have a narcissistic leader, the culture of the organisation slowly changes, so problems come up mid-term."

Previous research has tended to focus on what makes an effective leader, rather than on poor leadership.

It has highlighted the particular influence of the "heroic" model of leadership, with "productive narcissism" framed as necessary and beneficial to an organisation.

But Professor Higgs said that as well as possessing charisma and a strong sense of vision, narcissistic types are grandiose, intolerant of criticism, unwilling to compromise, arrogant, self-absorbed and have a sense of entitlement and a need to be admired.

His paper, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Leadership and Narcissism", published in the Journal of Change Management, warns that these traits may have a negative effect on the "internal climate" of an organisation, and may prevent others challenging the party line.

Professor Higgs said that working cultures become really toxic when senior managers begin to collude with the narcissist's behaviour.

"People start thinking that they need to protect the boss from hearing anything nasty - that's when the culture starts to shift," he said.

"Staff adapt their behaviour towards keeping the boss happy. From the top to the bottom, people are covering things up rather than admitting things are going wrong."

Professor Higgs, whose background is in industry, points to the collapse of the US bank Lehman Brothers and the energy company Enron as examples of this occurring.

He told Times Higher Education that other research had found that chief executives who are successful in the long term often tend to be "quiet people with a great deal of humility". Despite this, in difficult times - such as those higher education is facing today - organisations are more likely to turn to leaders who are perceived as "strong" to "shake up" the business, he said.

"With the recent collapse of major corporations, the crisis in banking and the global recession, we need to have a greater understanding of leadership," Professor Higgs said.

"We have to ask how we should manage change and what characteristics managers need to see it through successfully."

Professor Higgs concludes that more information is needed on how the careers of narcissistic managers develop, to give organisations an early warning.

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