Are entrepreneurs a bunch of narcissists? It's not a crazy question to ask. Many high-profile entrepreneurs aren't exactly lacking in the self-regard department, after all. Elon Musk even conceded on Twitter that he might be a bit of a narcissist:
Which stands to reason. It takes a fair degree of self-confidence to start a venture out of nothing. Add to that reality a load of real scientific data showing that "dark traits" such as narcissism and psychopathy are overrepresented among business leaders and you have reason to wonder whether narcissistic traits and business ownership go hand in hand.
Yik Kiu Leung, a professor of entrepreneurship at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, wondered too. Only unlike the rest of us, he was in a position to actually find out. Leung and his colleagues rounded up existing data on the personalities and achievements of more than 5,000 people from across the globe to test whether entrepreneurship and narcissistic traits tend to go together. The results were recently published in the Journal of Business Venturing Insights.
Talking the talk versus walking the walk
It's important to note that Leung's team weren't looking for full-fledged clinical narcissism here. We all seek attention, feel entitled, or get cocky sometimes. Some of us just exhibit these "narcissistic traits" more often than others. Were entrepreneurs more likely to be on the high end of the scale?
The answer, it turns out, depends on how you define entrepreneur. Leung's team found that those who expressed interest in entrepreneurship but hadn't yet started a business -- what are colloquially known as "wantrepreneurs" -- do indeed tend to be more narcissistic.
"We found a positive link between narcissism and intention to become an entrepreneur as well as a tendency to act like an entrepreneur (i.e., risk-taking, proactive, and innovative)," Leung told PsyPost.
But when Leung and his colleagues looked to see if actual, successful entrepreneurs exhibited the same self-aggrandizing personality traits, they came up empty-handed. "We found no clear linkage between narcissism and business success," Leung added.
Why? "Although narcissistic individuals may be attracted by the image and nature of entrepreneurship, they may have less control in the later phases of the entrepreneurial process," Leung and his co-authors write in the paper. "Over time, the undesirable aspects of narcissism may counter the initial positive aspects."
They refer to this as the "chocolate cake model" of entrepreneurial narcissism. Your first experience of a confident, charming narcissist might be pleasant and satisfying. But you wouldn't want to stick around and work with one on a long-term project any more than you'd want to keep shoveling delicious cake into your face all day.
Leung cautions that all the surveys his team analyzed were self-reports, so there is a possibility participants were less than accurate in their self-evaluation. Though previous research has shown that people's self-assessments of their own levels of narcissism are surprisingly accurate.
Beware, noisy entrepreneur wannabes
That caveat aside, what's the takeaway here? Perhaps in a society like ours that celebrates entrepreneurial success, it's no surprise that those who fancy themselves exceptional are more likely to believe they're destined to be the next Jeff Bezos. But this study is useful in underlining the distinction between talking the talk and walking the walk when it comes to being an entrepreneur.
Endlessly chattering on about your big entrepreneurial plans, attending every startup event in town, and calling yourself a founder on social media don't make you an entrepreneur. Leung's research suggests they do, however, make you more likely to be a raging narcissist.
Those who put in the actual work to build a business, on the other hand, are a mixed bag like everyone else. There are some huge egos among founders, sure, but there's little reason to think that real-world entrepreneurial success and narcissism go together generally. So go ahead and be skeptical of your loudest local wantrepreneur, but don't think that just because someone's a business owner they're more likely to be a self-regarding jerk.