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Career Coach: Negative qualities of narcissistic corporate leaders

The year leading up to elections is exciting for so many reasons. It is a chance for the public to see and hear the possible contenders, to learn what they are made of, and to see how they stack up relative to one another.

For someone who teaches and consults on leadership, it offers plenty of examples of various leadership styles (and what to do and not do). Take the issue of charisma, for example. What is it and why does it seem to have an effect on people's impressions?

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We often think about the magnetic and attractive side of charisma –- the person with strong oral communication skills who exudes presence and positivity. He or she has strong self-esteem and projects confidence. These are all wonderful attributes. We know that charismatic leaders can draw us in to listen to their message.

But there can be a "dark side" of charisma in which the charismatic person primarily uses charm to manipulate others. Leaders who have a dark side may be narcissistic leaders. According to Andrew DuBrin, author of "Narcissism in the Workplace," the negative qualities of narcissistic leaders are as follows:

•They have a very high need for attention and admiration and show less concern for others.

•They have excessive love and admiration of themselves and an inflated sense of self-worth.

•They look at themselves with undue favor, self-love, conceit, pride and vanity.

•They lack empathy for others, especially since they are so preoccupied with themselves.

•They may act immaturely (for example, use inappropriate humor or gestures) to draw attention to themselves.

•They may act in grandiose or exhibitionistic ways.

•They like being the center of attention.

•They don't think anyone has the right to criticize them and they complain about criticism (that they are being "picked on").

•If they fail at something, they blame others.

•They don't take most rules seriously because they make their own rules.

•They may interrupt others and hog conversations.

•They believe that if they ruled the world, it would be a much better place.

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Researchers Robert Raskin and Howard Terry created an assessment called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to measure these attributes. They have found that those who score high on the assessment are described as "dominant, extroverted, aggressive, impulsive, self-centered, self-indulgent and nonconforming."

Furthermore, they said high scorers "like to be in charge and gain power, they like to act independently, they act in a superior fashion, they exploit others for their own personal gain, and they believe they are entitled to favorable treatments."

What does it matter if the leader is narcissistic? Research has shown that narcissism can limit people from bringing dissenting but valuable ideas to the table; create enemies and alienate key followers, leading to excessive turnover and reducing productivity; and blind leaders to the real issues and dangers.

Charisma can be a very positive leadership attribute that helps leaders get their messages out in a hopeful, optimistic way.

We want to have leaders who are confident and ambitious. We just need to be aware that sometimes narcissistic leaders can use charisma to charm and manipulate others.

In the year of politics, while narcissistic candidates may bring lots of national news and attention for their outlandish behaviors, maybe we should have all of the candidates complete the narcissism assessment as well as other relevant measures similar to what we might use for corporate leaders.

After all, why not use some science (and measures of competence) to select the next political leaders of our country?

Joyce E.A. Russell is vice dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and director of its Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She writes a weekly Career Coach column for the Washington Post. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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