Narcissistic leaders: even children fall for their superficial charms

Does our penchant for unfit but charismatic populists trace back to our playground politics?

Even our youngest citizens can be won over with empty promises to make the playground great again. Shutterstock

We live in an age of narcissistic leadership. Around the world, we are witnessing the rise and fall of narcissistic leaders – people who hold grandiose views of themselves, who believe laws and regulations don’t apply to them, and who crave the respect and admiration of their followers.

Could narcissistic leadership have roots in childhood? As psychologists, my colleagues and I set out to investigate.

Narcissism is a personality trait that is characterised by an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement. Our work shows that narcissism develops in childhood. From the age of seven, there are stable differences between children in their levels of narcissism. Narcissistic children are more likely to make claims such as “I am a very special person”, “kids like me deserve something extra”, and “I am a great example for other kids to follow”.

As adults, narcissists often emerge as leaders in groups. Narcissists captivate others with their alluring charm, bold vision, and unshakeable self-confidence.

Given that children spend most of their free time at school in groups, we wondered whether narcissistic children would be seen as leaders by their peers. They may be the playground’s prime ministers.

For our study, we recruited a sample of 332 children between the ages of seven and 14. We assessed their narcissism levels and then asked children to write down the names of classmates whom they perceived as a “true leader”. We explained that a leader is “someone who decides what a group does, someone who’s the boss”.

Narcissistic children were often seen by their classmates as true leaders. The association between narcissism and leadership was so consistent that it emerged in 96% of all the classrooms we investigated.

So now we know that narcissistic children often emerge as leaders in their classrooms. But do they actually excel as leaders?

To address this question, we invited children to perform a collaborative task. They formed a three-person committee to select the best police officer from several candidates. They received detailed descriptions of each candidate, with attributes such as “likes helping other people”, “is good at karate”, and “is afraid of the dark”. The task was designed so that children could only identify the best candidate when they shared information about candidates with their group members. Collaboration was key.

We randomly assigned one child to be the leader. This child sat at the head of the table and was responsible for guiding the group discussion and making the final decision.

Despite having positive perceptions of their own leadership skills, narcissistic children did not excel as leaders. Compared to other leaders, they did not show better leadership and did not guide their groups to better performance. They were perfectly average.

If narcissistic children didn’t actually excel as leaders, why did their classmates still see them as true leaders? Children, like adults, may take the big talk of narcissistic individuals at face value. Indeed, people are often unable to look through the narcissistic façade, mistaking confidence for competence.

This might help us understand what drives people to choose narcissists to lead them but it doesn’t mean that adult narcissistic leaders should be compared to children. It is concerning that former US president Donald Trump was, at various points, described as a “toddler in chief”, “an insecure boasting little boy” and “a spoiled five-year old throwing a tantrum”. That’s not only unfair to toddlers but also legitimises Trump’s behaviour while in office. An adult can be considered accountable for inciting violence and undermining democracy; a toddler cannot.

In 1931, Sigmund Freud wrote that narcissists “impress others as ‘personalities’” and are well-suited “to take on the role of leaders”. Our work shows, however, that narcissists excel at impressing others – not at leading others. As a society, we should be more careful about selecting our leaders based on their competence rather than their confidence.

Eddie Brummelman
Assistant Professor and Jacobs Foundation
Research Fellow 2021-2023, Research Institute
of Child Development and Education,
University of Amsterdam

* Published in print edition on 25 June 2021

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