Pat Wright: Are All CEO's Narcissists?


The popular press often portrays CEOs as arrogant and narcissistic authoritarians intoxicated with power and running roughshod over "the little guy" (whoever that is). Our experience with CEOs and our interviews of board members over the past year suggests that while some CEOs fit that description, it usually leads to failure. As such, we would expect that the vast majority of CEOs do not resemble the narcissistic stereotype. However, the prevalence of narcissists in the CEO chair is an empirical question, so we sought to answer it with our 2016 HR@Moore Survey of CHROs.

CHROs were asked to report the extent to which they agreed with how 19 different statements described their CEO's leadership style. About half (10) of the behaviors involved narcissism using a classic narcissism scale and the rest (9) addressed humility. Overall, CEOs scored slightly higher on the humility items than on the narcissism items.

 However, this does not answer the question as to the prevalence of narcissists in the CEO chair. To answer that we created a distribution of CEOs that fell into different response categories. Our results showed that 2% of CHROs "Mostly Agreed" to "Entirely Agreed" that their CEO displayed narcissistic behavior and another 3% fell in the "Somewhat Agree" to "Mostly Agree" category. An additional 11% fell in the "Neutral" to "Somewhat Agree" range, which may be best interpreted as being borderline, but probably would not be declared full-blown narcissists. Thus, according to our results about 5% of the CEOs were described as narcissists.

In contrast, more than half (52%) of CEOs are far from being narcissistic (falling in the mostly/entirely disagree and somewhat/mostly disagree part of the distribution) so they outnumber narcissist CEOs 10-1.

Finally, we compared those described as narcissists with those described as humble. Our results show that 60% of CEOs are described as in the top 2 categories in terms of humility. Thus, CEOs were 12 times more likely to be categorized in the greatest humility range than the greatest narcissistic range.

So, certainly narcissist CEOs exist, and in a later blog I will explore the negative consequences they create. But our results argue that the popular press’s common stereotype of narcissistic CEOs could be considered "fake news."