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It’s something she thinks about every day. It comes with Annabel de Hoogh’s work as a professor at the UvA Amsterdam Business School, but the subject she deals with also contributes. Not a day goes by without news reports about narcissistic leaders. These are leaders who are so self-centred that they are actually not suitable for their job.
Annebel de Hoogh
Annebel de Hoogh

Yet, these are precisely the people who often lead a company, even though de Hoogh's research shows that they are not actually capable of fulfilling this role. And not only are they bad for the company they work for, but also for the employees.

De Hoogh: ‘Something very strange happens in our minds when we get to choose a leader. We think we should choose a dominant leader: the king of the jungle. It gives us a good feeling; we trust those leaders. While, in fact, we should avoid them because they are not as smart as we think. In fact, in the long run, they do more harm than good. Narcissistic leaders have a negative impact on the entire company. Even employees just below that leader in the hierarchy start behaving similarly, and the layer below them as well. This creates an unsafe work environment.’


Especially in uncertain times, we choose a dominant leader. They are often charming individuals who pretend they can solve problems quickly. And once they are in charge, something remarkable happens: with the belief of knowing everything, they hinder information exchange and act as if they have a solution for everything. De Hoogh: ‘It goes without saying that that's not possible, but it often makes an impression. If your new boss gives you the idea that all problems are easily solved, you're relieved. You feel that problems are finally being solved, and your trust in the leader grows. Until that person soon exhibits abusive supervision: people are ridiculed and berated. That charming leader turns out not to be so charming after all.’

The professor wants her research to help people see why it's better to choose a different type of leader. De Hoogh: ‘Power often attracts the wrong people. If you know that, you can look for people who are more modest and much better suited to be a leader. The CEO of the future does not stand above people but beside them. A good CEO shares power, loves collaboration, gives others a lot of responsibility, and does not pretend to know everything. You find them only if you look at leaders in a different way. As things stand, the more narcissistic someone is, the less they have to prove what they can do. A narcissist is so charming and self-assured that many people don't critically examine their work experience. By selecting candidates based on other qualities and assessing whether a leader connects people, you get leaders who do their job well. And if it's too late, and a narcissist is already in charge? Then it helps to establish clear rules about behavior. Because narcissists don't feel shame when others do, they need guidance. Agreements on paper help with that.’

Addressing narcissism early

It is striking that more and more people are being diagnosed as narcissists. According to the professor, this has several reasons: ‘We are raising our children to be increasingly narcissistic. We make them feel very important. Social media also has an influence: it's very normal to put ourselves in the spotlight. There's no shame in that either. We take photos of ourselves all day and share them with the world. Also, in education, we need to pay attention to how we envision the future. Our students are also future leaders. We shouldn't train them to be the king of the jungle but leaders who make our future better. That's difficult because every day, they also see those examples that I read about in the newspaper: leaders who set a bad example. And if you see that often enough, you think you should be such a leader too. While our future requires responsible leaders and people who dare to say, 'I don't know right now and could use some help.'’

De Hoogh is far from done with this subject: ‘There's nothing better than researching something you encounter every day and talking to everyone about it. There are still many things I want to explore. For example, whether you can predict if someone is unfit as a leader based on how they speak or move. I enjoy unraveling and exposing that. It's so interesting to figure out why we keep choosing people who are bad for us. We've found a few pieces of that puzzle, but a more complete picture will give us a greater the chance to really make changes.’

Annebel de Hoogh will give her inaugural lecture on this subject on Friday, 2 February at 16:30.