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What Leaders Can Learn from Narcissists, Manipulators and Psychopaths

Can dark qualities help you achieve professional success?
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Sometimes scientific research teaches us things we might not want to know. That happened when organizational psychologists studied West Point cadets to learn what personal qualities were most likely to predict success. The No. 1 answer? Narcissism.

"It was kind of amazing," says Seth Spain, assistant professor of organizational behavior, Binghamton University School of Management. The cadets were measured on many different aspects of leadership by both their superior officers and those who reported to them, he explains. "Narcissism benefited almost all of them," he says. "It was the only characteristic that had a uniformly positive effect."

Intrigued (and perhaps a little horrified) researchers decided to learn more about how unpleasant personality traits lead to professional success. So a team led by Spain conducted an exhaustive review of more than 140 studies and published their findings in a new report, The Dark Side of Personality at work. The report identifies three personality traits--"The Dark Triad"-- that can help rocket their possessors to heights of success.

At least for a while. From Julius Caesar to Bernie Madoff to Kevin Spacey's character in House of Cards (we all know he'll come crashing down before the series concludes), those with too much of the Dark Triad will eventually come to grief. "For the most part, these traits are associated with career derailment at some point," Spain says. "Unless you have exceptional skill, you will eventually alienate your co-workers, employees, and customers."

Meanwhile, those of us without these traits can benefit from knowing about them. We can observe how the Dark Triad helps people operate, and take on a little of these qualities--just enough, at just the right moments--to make a difference:

Narcissists inspire enthusiasm.

Think Napoleon and Steve Jobs. Narcissists achieve amazing things, usually by putting their needs and desires ahead of everything and everyone else. They'll also go to great lengths to achieve their goals. Most important, they can be great at getting others on board as well.

"Narcissists are great at presenting themselves and their ideas, and they're incredibly enthusiastic about stuff that's important to them. People come away from their pitches thinking 'This is so exciting! It sounds like a great opportunity,'" Spain says.

One definition of leadership is the ability to articulate a goal or idea clearly and get others to follow along, he points out--and just a little bit of narcissism can help you do that. So if you're pitching, he suggests, "Have the attitude a narcissist might: 'I am awesome and this is the best idea you are ever going to hear.'"

Manipulators know how to influence others.

Master manipulators know all the buttons to push to get what they want from the people around them, Spain says. There are many ways to influence others, including ingratiation by praise or flattery, forming political alliances with others, horse trading, and even threats.

The rest of us usually use only one or two of these influence tactics, he adds--most often clumsy attempts at ingratiation. We may feel funny about the rest, but the fact is manipulating people toward a goal that will benefit them as well as you is the essence of good leadership. So we should be willing--in moderation--to try the full range of tactics for influencing others if the end results are worth it.

Psychopaths don't look back.

Wait a second. Our most successful leaders are psychopaths? "No, no, no!" Spain says. He explains that what many people think of as a "psychopath"--Jeffrey Dahmer for instance--is not what an organizational psychologist has in mind. The sub-clinical psychopaths studied here simply have a willingness to put themselves ahead of other people, coupled with very little shame or remorse when they've done wrong. They're the darkest of the Dark Triad, Spain says. But, he notes, "they bounce back pretty quickly from failure." As a result, they're very willing to make mistakes and take risks.

Those are qualities every leader can use. "We can learn a lot about resilience from psychopaths," he says. Their lack of shame and guilt tends to be bad for social relationships, so we shouldn't emulate that. On the other hand, "Everyone can benefit from learning to say, 'I made a mistake,' accept it, and move on."

Like this post? Sign up here for Minda's weekly email and you'll never miss her columns. Next time: What we can all learn from a classically dreadful customer service call.

Last updated: Jul 16, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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