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Do narcissists tend to be successful?

Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration. Narcissists tend to have an overblown sense of skills and abilities and think very highly of themselves. This raises the question – does this high self-regard translate to real-world success for narcissists? Or does their self-absorption and lack of consideration for others hold them back? Let’s explore the existing research on this topic.

What is narcissism?

Narcissism exists on a spectrum, with narcissistic personality disorder representing the farthest extreme end. Not everyone with narcissistic tendencies has a full-blown personality disorder. Some key characteristics of narcissism include:

  • Exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement
  • Preoccupation with success, power, beauty, and brilliance
  • Belief they are special and should only associate with other special people
  • Require constant praise and admiration
  • Lack of empathy and tendency to exploit others for personal gain
  • Envy of others and belief others envy them
  • Arrogant behaviors and attitudes

This preoccupation with the self often comes at the expense of concern for others. Narcissists typically pursue their own agenda and needs regardless of its impact. Their actions frequently exploit, devalue, and manipulate people around them.

The link between narcissism and success

Given their inflated sense of self and desire for external validation, do narcissists tend to accomplish more and climb higher on the career ladder? There are several factors to consider here.

Short-term gains

In the short term, certain facets of narcissism do lead to some beneficial outcomes and performance indicators of success. Narcissists tend to be outgoing, energetic, and charismatic. They are skilled at networking, self-promotion, and making good first impressions. Having an inflated sense of their capabilities can bolster confidence and ambition.

For jobs or situations requiring energy, dominance, persuasion, and performance under pressure, narcissists often excel. They thrive in rapidly advancing start-up companies and sales positions relying on outgoing aggression and risk-taking.

Long-term costs

However, the interpersonal issues and lack of empathy caused by narcissism hinder longer-term success in many cases. While narcissists often climb quickly, they struggle to sustain long-term relationships, teamwork, and commitment required at senior leadership levels.

Their sense of entitlement, lack of accountability, and habit of blaming others for failures limits growth. Their selfishness and hunger for status impede effective mentoring and people development essential for leaders.

Over time, research shows coworkers tend to dislike working with narcissists. The narcissist’s hunger for glory and disregard for ethics also lead to higher incidences of white collar crime like fraud, plagiarism, Ponzi schemes, and precarious decision-making.

The Bright Side and Dark Side

Organizational psychologists break down narcissism into two faces – the bright side and the dark side. The bright side promotes confidence, vision, and charisma. This helps narcissists pitch ideas, get buy-in, and rise up the career ladder. However, the dark side harms long-term success through entitlement, exploitation, and a volatile temper.

Trying to suppress the dark side is exhausting and ultimately hurts performance. With maturity, some narcissists learn to balance their needs with the needs of others. They funnel their confidence into realistic ambitions and form mutually beneficial partnerships. This hybrid helps counteract narcissism’s downsides.

Leadership implications

What does this mean for narcissists in leadership roles? A moderate amount of narcissism helps leaders envision major change and inspire followers. But too much narcissism leads to abusive supervision, illegal behavior, and organziational decline.

For example, Steve Jobs is considered a classic narcissist visionary. His relentless ambition and passion helped create revolutionary products. But he was also notoriously challenging to work with on a day-to-day basis.

The healthiest organizations limit narcissistic leaders’ power and pair them with leaders focused on people, ethics, and sustainability. Checks and balances help organizations benefit from narcissists’ energy while minimizing their destructive potential.

Table: Pros and Cons of Narcissistic Leaders

Pros Cons
Confidence to promote bold vision Unrealistic sense of superiority
Charisma to inspire followers Exploitation of followers
Ambition to accomplish goals Volatile temper and blaming
Persistence through obstacles Unethical behavior
Skilled self-promotion Ruined relationships

This table summarizes the bright side strengths narcissists can offer as leaders, along with the dark side weaknesses organizations need to control.

Are narcissists more successful in certain fields?

Are narcissistic traits more common among successful people in certain lines of work? Research points to particular fields where narcissism provides advantages.


Multiple studies show narcissism is higher among politicians than the general public. The desire for power, prestige, and attention drives narcissists to pursue political office. Confidence and charisma help them with campaigning and public persuasion. Willingness to exploit opportunities for advancement leads to rapid political rises.

However, the empathetic skills required for statesmanship and diplomacy often lag behind. Stubbornness, a volatile temper, and heightened sensitivity to criticism also impair narcissists’ political effectiveness over the long run.


The drive for status attracts narcissists to wealthy careers like investment banking, hedge fund management, and private equity. These fields offer big paychecks, prestige, and competition – prime narcissistic supply.

Narcissists in finance leverage charisma and confidence to attract investor money. Their appetite for risk-taking drives deal-making. But market losses and unethical practices also abound in the finance world, fueled by narcissistic disregard for negative consequences.


Seeking fame and applause draw narcissists to acting, music, media, and other entertainment fields. Their exhibitionism thrives in the spotlight. Ability to project charismatic stage personas helps them achieve celebrity status.

However, many narcissistic celebrities lead chaotic personal lives. Addiction, financial mismanagement, and interpersonal conflicts are common pitfalls. Without discipline and emotional balance, narcissistic tendencies take over.

Tips for working with narcissistic leaders

If you find yourself reporting to or collaborating with a narcissistic boss or colleague, here are some tips for protecting yourself and working effectively:

  • Appeal to their self-interest rather than emotions or ethics when persuading or presenting ideas.
  • Offer measured praise and acknowledge their perspectives to avoid defensive reactions.
  • Set clear boundaries and avoid flattery that fuels deeper narcissistic behaviors.
  • Disagree diplomatically and focus discussions on joint solutions rather than just pointing out flaws.
  • Plan communications for optimal impact, since narcissists have short attention spans for topics unrelated to their interests.
  • Have allies and third parties provide validating feedback that will be better received than from your direct input.
  • Suggest win-win scenarios where the narcissist’s goals and your goals can both be accomplished.
  • Document agreements and important communications to sidestep gaslighting or blame for any issues later on.
  • Get support from trusted mentors higher up who can put situations in perspective.
  • Set your own career boundaries and savvy political tactics to safeguard your interests and get work done.

With preparation, emotional insulation, and tactical communications, you can often direct narcissistic leaders’ energy toward shared goals while safeguarding your own needs. It’s not easy, but can be done. Having solid organizational allies helps immensely.


In summary, narcissists’ intense drive for success and status does propel them up the career ladder quickly in many fields like politics, finance, and entertainment. Their confidence and charisma are assets, especially for leadership roles and persuading investors. But narcissism’s dark side tends to undermine long-term success.

Lack of empathy, addiction issues, unethical behavior, and damaged relationships eventually sabotage narcissistic leaders. Organizations need to institute checks and balances on them. With self-awareness and self-regulation, even narcissists can achieve great things fueled by their ambition – but they need collaborative partners to keep them accountable.