Most leadership advice these days plays up the importance of emotional intelligence--or the ability to process social cues and approach relationships with empathy. So why is it that often the most admired CEOs--think Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, or Elon Musk--gain favor despite their reputation for self-centered, narcissistic traits?
A new study, recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and highlighted in the Los Angeles Times, may shed light on why narcissists become popular in the first place. While emotionally intelligent people tend to forge more relationships over time, narcissists have the upper hand when it comes to making better first impressions in a group.
Researchers surveyed 273 first-year college students from a variety of Polish universities. Each student was assigned a spot in a study group, of which there were 15 total. At the beginning of the study, each student completed three tests measuring their narcissism, emotional intelligence, and self-esteem. Then, the students were asked to name the people they liked most in the group--once at the beginning of the study, and again three months later.
While the individuals who ranked high in narcissism were more likely to be ranked as well-liked by the other people in the group at the beginning of the study, they were less likely to find new friends over time. Meanwhile, the students who were high in emotional intelligence were more likely to gain friends by the end of the study.
As theTimes' Melissa Healy points out, what might be the most important takeaway from this study is that narcissists and emotionally intelligent people are popular for different reasons.
"In the end, narcissists may just have a lot more 'churn' in their friendships, and that may work for them," Healy writes. Their high level of self confidence attracts a lot of admirers initially. But it's not a trait that helps forge new, long-lasting relationships.
There are a couple of important caveats to keep in mind. First, the narcissists were not more likely to lose friends--they were simply less likely to make new friends over time. This might explain why highly charismatic, narcissistic bosses who have a few loyal followers are able to withstand disgruntled employee turnover. Second, narcissism and emotional intelligence are not either/or personality traits--most people have a mix of both.
According to the researchers, the right mix for the most well-liked leaders is clear. "It seems that the combination most beneficial for long-term peer popularity is low narcissism paired with high EI," the researchers concluded.
Another study of employees at Fortune 100 companies in 2015 put a slight twist on the idea: "humble narcissists," it concluded, make the most well-liked business leaders.
In other words, if you are a narcissist, mastering the art of the "humble brag" might serve you well.