Effective leadership enriches businesses. A 2010 study (Zenger, Folkman & Edinger) ranked leaders within one Fortune 500 bank according to their competencies as measured by their employees, and found that departments with the best leaders had net income gains of $4.5 million, whereas departments with the worst leaders had net income losses of $1.2 million, for a total of a $5.7 million difference between the best and worst department leaders. It is vital to business, therefore, that the characteristics that make effective and ineffective leaders be studied, so that the best traits can be emulated and the worst traits avoided.
Although men fill the majority of executive leadership roles, the number of women executives is increasing. As such, research needs to examine more thoroughly the differences in leadership traits between genders, to better understand how men and women lead (Cook & Glass, 2014; Warner, 2015). There have been effective and ineffective leaders of both genders, but it is possible that certain traits predominate in men versus women, causing employees to respond differently, leading to different financial outcomes. Currently, there is a notable lack of understanding about how women’s personality traits affect corporate leadership (Pillemer, Graham & Burke, 2014).
Of particular concern in business is the “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. These personality characteristics, associated with limited empathy (Joanson, Lyons, Bethell & Ross, 2013), are common in business leaders (Perry, 2015), yet are considered to be damaging to employee morale and thus longterm business success (Joanson, Slomski & Partyka, 2012). Each trait is unique but not necessarily mutually exclusive; thus, possessing one of the traits in and of itself may not necessarily result in overwhelmingly negative outcomes (Pailing, Boon & Egan, 2014). Individuals with core dark triad characteristics show aggressive tendencies, except for narcissists unless directly provoked (Bettencourt, Talley, Benjamin & Valentine, 2006; Konrath, Corneille, Bushman & Luminet, 2014; Perry, 2015). Interestingly, low empathy mediates gender differences in aspects of the dark triad, with narcissism in women and psychopathy in men, suggesting different emphases for men and women on the dark triad spectrum (Joanson, et al., 2013).
One can argue that of the core traits of the dark triad, narcissism may be the least of the three evils. By itself, narcissism can prove beneficial in the corporate world, allowing leaders to make difficult decisions based on the best interests of the organization and the leadership team (Joanson, Wee, Li & Jackson, 2014; Owens, Wallace & Walderman, 2015; Rauthmann & Kolar, 2012). Narcissism can be an effective leadership trait in the workplace despite its negative aspects because it allows leaders to focus on clear, defined, and often difficult objectives without the interference or distraction of emotionally based decision making (Grijalva, Harms, Newman, Gaddis & Fraley, 2014). Thus, there is growing interest in how gender impacts narcissism as a leadership trait in the business world (Grijalva & Harms, 2014). Since low-empathy women have more of a tendency to display narcissistic traits while low-empathy men are more likely to display psychopathy, the impact of narcissism on organizations increasingly led by women needs further study (Chizema, Kamuriwo & Shinozawa, 2015).
Narcissism has been widely debated in clinical circles as to whether it is an impairment of function (Dingfelder, 2011). As a personality disorder, narcissism involves antagonism of others characterized by grandiosity and attention seeking (Book, Bisser & Volk, 2015; Sosik, Chun & Zhu, 2013). Narcissism has been associated with negative behavior for decades, through both medical diagnosis and popular literature (Hutchison, 2014).
However, in general, narcissists make charming and seductive leaders, often with a magnetism and outward-facing confidence that lands them in positions of power (Owens, Wallace & Waldman, 2015). Narcissism can allow individuals to achieve success by focusing on themselves, and can become a positive characteristic when balanced with humility in leadership decisions (Owens et al., 2015). As well, healthy narcissism allows the individual to form an ongoing, realistic self interest and mature goals, principally the ability to form objective relationships in a corporate leadership role. The concern is when the degree of narcissism outweighs humility and results in impairments in self functioning, as manifested by deficiencies in identity, in self reflection, and in interpersonal understanding, which can be detrimental for those in leadership roles (American Psychiatric Association, 2012).
Whether men are more narcissistic than women or vice versa remains an open question (Barnett & Powell, 2015; Edelstein, Newton & Stewart, 2012; Grijalva, et al., 2014; Joanson, Li & Teicher, 2010). The research that has been done is mixed. Pillemer, Graham and Burke (2014) found that female CEOs were rated higher than male CEOs on communal traits such as supportiveness and warmth, while male CEOs rated higher on agentic traits such as dominance. The communal composite more strongly predicted company rank and profits than the agentic composite. The implications of gender-linked traits when considering narcissism and leadership remain unexplained (Pillemer, Graham & Burke, 2014). The process model proposed by Sosik and colleagues (2013) demonstrates how leader charisma and constructive and destructive forms of narcissism interact. Psychological empowerment mediates the differential effect of leader charisma, while motivation is often influenced by narcissism. This is key in examining the role of narcissism in male and female leaders as a mediator of success in the workplace.
Narcissistic personality and gender differences need further investigation, in order to better facilitate effective hiring in senior corporate leadership positions and better understand the differences between genders in leadership capabilities (DeHoogh, Den Hartog & Nevicka, 2013; Barnett & Powell, 2015; Owens et al., 2015; Grijalva et al., 2014; Hoffman et al., 2013; Joanson, Slomski & Partyka, 2013; Budworth & Mann, 2010). Minimal attention has been paid to narcissistic female leaders with limited empathy. Research needs to consider how leader characteristics such as narcissism can impact leader effectiveness (Semenya & Honey, 2015; Chun & Zhu, 2014; Joanson, Lyons, Bethell & Ross, 2013; Joanson, Slomski & Partyka, 2012; O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks & McDaniel, 2012). There is a need for an examination of the role that narcissism plays and how this personality trait impacts the effectiveness of female leaders. It may be that women in general are better leaders than men because they have a tendency to have more empathy, but when they are low-empathy leaders with traits on the dark triad, narcissism tends to predominate and to associate with humility, in ways that allow difficult business decisions but do not damage employee morale, unlike other traits in the dark triad. If male and female differences in narcissism and its use in leadership decisions can be clarified, this knowledge could lead to better screening tools for choosing business leaders, as well as better training programs to provide leaders the decision-making and leadership skills they need for success.
Therefore, this study will compare men and women in leadership roles to determine levels of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism; as well as balancing levels of empathy and humility; and compare these with employee evaluations of their leaders, as well as the history of income and profits for the divisions that they lead.