Narcissists Look Like Good Leaders, but They Aren't

“ … the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we … commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. … groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders … these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women. … men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent. … Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders …”
— Excerpt from Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

Model kissing herself in a mirror under mistletoe; NOTE: she is a MODEL, not narcissistic!

Americans like people who sound good and we love people who look good, so it's hardly surprising that we elect politicians with those attributes.

Is anything wrong with that? Yes. If you are familiar with the attractive expert syndrome, or if you can wrap your mind around elementary statistics, you know that selecting people on the basis of exceptional appearance almost invariably ensures that the chosen ones will be less qualified; they will not be as intelligent, knowledgeable, innovative, or otherwise talented.

model portraying a doctor
Mary was as attractive as this model

It's easy to see why. Consider who you might end up with if you select your doctor on the basis of appearance. The most attractive person amongst the 256 people in my medical school class was Mary, whose beauty was resplendent. She now has MD after her name, but she wasn't at the top of the class, or even close to it. One of my friends who knew her said she flunked one rotation, but later made it up—the med school equivalent of summer school. Perhaps she flunked other rotations or units, too. If for some reason you want a doctor who looks good, she's a great choice. However, if you want the brightest doctor, you could do better. Much better.

Immediately after meeting more than a few patients in the ER, they'd frown and bluntly say, “You don't look like a doctor.”

That's true. On some days, I looked like the BEFORE picture in a Clearasil® ad, while on other days I simply looked too young to have graduated from high school, let alone medical school. Indeed, when I'd walk into a room and introduce myself, some surprised patients would blurt out, “You're a doctor? I thought you were in high school!” (Leaving me wondering why they thought high school students moonlight in the ER!)

While some patients were concerned with my appearance, not one bothered to ask how I did in medical school: top 1% of my class. Surely that would matter more than appearance, right?

The director of my residency program once commented that I was the smartest resident they ever had, and one of my former bosses told me that I was the smartest doctor he ever met. While working in a busy ER that handled cardiopulmonary resuscitations (“codes”) every day, I've gone over 1½ years without losing one patient while other ER docs put patient after patient into the ground. Most codes for patients with outside-the-hospital cardiac arrests (the ones I'm discussing) are not successful, but my “batting average” (so to speak) in saving those patients was much better than average. In baseball terms, the average ER doc batted less than .050 (striking out over 95% of the time), while I batted 1.000 (never striking out) for many months in a row even while sometimes handling up to three codes at the same time. Wouldn't any of that matter more than appearance?

Nope. People are apt to make snap judgments based on appearance alone even when that is a poor criterion. The stereotypical doctor has gray (if any) hair, is plump if not downright fat, and plenty of wrinkles, evidently thought to confer wisdom. It's a mystery to me why anyone would seek health advice from people who don't look very healthy. Some older doctors are brimming with knowledge, but even more are not up to date.

One of my bosses (not the aforementioned one) was Hollywood handsome but pathetically incompetent. As one of the many examples I could cite to illustrate that, I once found him standing with his arms crossed in the corner of a room, far from the patient: a young child near death. Was he intubating the child? No. Was he inserting an IV? No. Administering medications? No. Did he even properly position the child? Hell no! He was just standing in the corner with his arms crossed (oh, how a body language expert could dissect that pose!), just waiting for the kid to die.


Is standing motionless near critically ill patients how ER doctors earn their paychecks? Obviously not. We do stuff. Undoubtedly seeking to justify his inaction, Dr. Incompetent lamely explained that he tried to intubate and obtain intravenous access on the patient, but couldn't.

I thought, WTF? An ER doctor should be able to insert a breathing tube and IV into anyone, even supremely challenging cases—and this wasn't one of them. I took over, did the things Dr. Incompetent should have done, and saved the patient's life. It was super easy for me: child's play, in fact. If Dr. Incompetent thought this was a tough case, I shuddered to think of how he would botch more difficult ones.

Had I been his boss, that one episode of incompetence would have been more than enough justification to immediately fire him. He'd been there so many years the hospital administration and community had numerous opportunities to spot his incompetence, but he had one thing that insulated him from such scrutiny: he wasn't just handsome, he looked like the epitome of a brilliant doctor. And I looked like the BEFORE picture in a Clearasil® ad … but I saved the child's life.

The best are rarely the best looking

The best teacher I ever had looked like Alfred E. Neuman who hadn't aged well, but he was a fount of knowledge with a heart of gold and a knack for instilling a love of learning that made me as fond of education as most men are of beauty queens.

If you needed a carpenter, you would have to have rocks in your head to hire a handsome one instead of Norm Abram. Inexplicably, most people care more about the qualifications of someone fixing a leaky roof than they do about who will lead our nation into a bright future or economic doom.

The relative scarcity of attractiveness ensures that when a preference for appearance takes most people out of the running, the pool of rejected people is statistically more likely to include more qualified ones.

gorgeous model
This gorgeous model isn't filling out a Fox News application, but physically she has The Right Stuff to work there.

This explains why the foxy women on Fox News, although very bright, are not the smartest women available. Their silver tongues often mask an alarming affinity for inside-the-box thinking that makes me wonder if they can do more than look good while parroting ideas that are hardly unique. They are superb at finding fault with politicians who don't march in lockstep with their ideology, but they likely never consider that they are partly responsible for America's economic woes.

Speaking at a TED Conference, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, said, “There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

The news media is the Fourth Estate given constitutional protection of free speech because our Founding Fathers deemed that essential to keeping our government on track. Our government derailed long ago, but the foxes on Fox don't hold Republican feet to the fire. That isn't fair and balanced as they claim, but their mesmerizing beauty is so spellbinding that few viewers ever consider how they would be better served by watching programs hosted by people with better brains but less attractive bodies.

The best girlfriend I ever had was not the most attractive; the most attractive was a narcissist who I'd gladly introduce to an enemy.

The best mechanic I ever had could immediately diagnose and quickly fix any problem, even when he was drunk, as he usually was. His smoking and drinking ravaged his body, but his mind was sharp. The best looking mechanic I had put a steering part on backward.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that my best teacher, girlfriend, mechanic, builder, plumber, electrician, barber, doctor, you-name-it, was not the best looking. People strive to achieve success and acceptance, but when attractive people get want they want, it limits their incentive to try as hard as others. Therefore, while attractive people may get as much as—or more than—others, they often give less because they learn less and feel less need to work hard. Things just fall into their laps because others often are eager to give things to attractive people (especially women): smiles, compliments, jobs, money, and other stuff.

Roland Burris was appointed by Rod Blagojevich (then Governor of Illinois) to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after his election as President. According to the Wikipedia, “The appointment was controversial, as the governor was already under investigation and there were rumors of his being paid for the appointment. [...] Calls for Burris's resignation from the Senate began after allegations were made that he had lied under oath about his contacts with associates of Blagojevich prior to his appointment.”

Yes, but have you ever seen Burris? He looks so sweet, innocent, and adorably charming that my girlfriend and I both said we wanted to hug him, have him as a neighbor, and bake tasty treats for him. Even after allegations surfaced suggesting he may be a wolf in sheep's clothing, we still wanted to hug him—scoundrel or not; we just didn't want him in the Senate.

Once our minds have a positive association with someone, it can be difficult to erase the attraction we feel even when our better judgment questions that affinity. Since the elite in Washington, DC are often just as attractive as the elite in Hollywood, we often are too eager to assume that politicians have The Right Stuff even when they, like Dr. Incompetent, don't know what the hell they're doing or, like Roland Burris, know exactly what they are doing.

As an ER doctor, I sometimes needed to involuntarily commit insane people who were a danger to themselves or others. Most of those folks could not appreciate why they should have to relinquish control over their lives. While leaders in the U.S. government are not insane in terms of standard psychiatric criteria, from a commonsense standpoint, one could reasonably argue that they are running our country in an insane manner and therefore should be removed from power. The best way to do that is via elections, of course, but elections have not been an effective remedy for our political and economic ailments. Elections do not work as well as they should for a number of reasons. Foremost among them is our affinity for good-looking candidates.

I turned on the TV to find a Fox News program in progress: a forum consisting of amazingly attractive middle-aged women. “Where did they find so many foxes, I wondered?”

I watched more and found out: Washington, DC; they were all Members of Congress. There is no correlation between attractiveness and leadership ability, or attractiveness and brainpower, so finding so many especially attractive women in Congress proves that elections are often just beauty contests.

Research has shown that people tend to vote for the candidate who is taller (in the case of men) and more attractive, unconsciously falling victim to an innate tendency to equate a better appearance with better leadership skills and more brainpower. Men often make the same mistake in assuming that beautiful women make better wives, when the converse may be true.

Until we become more proficient in differentiating leaders based on their ideas instead of their Pepsodent smiles, we could usually choose better ones by not voting for physically attractive candidates. We've voted for Ken and Barbie dolls who've collectively done something that not too long ago would have seemed impossible: take the United States, seemingly destined to be the world's indomitable economic superpower, and inflict considerably more damage upon its future than all of our past and present enemies combined, including Japan and Germany in World War II, the USSR during the Cold War, Islamic terrorists, and everyone convicted of treason in U.S. history. All of those enemies combined couldn't begin to deliver the KO blow that our liberal and conservative politicians have given to present and future Americans.

Physical attractiveness combined with narcissism is a malignant combination that often blinds onlookers, preventing them from seeing even obvious flaws. When we are dazzled by the veneer, we often cannot see the rotten core.

Let's face it: most of us are followers, not leaders. We look to the man with something extra—the man (or woman) who radiates self-confidence—to lead us because, deep down, we feel inferior. We feel that anyone audacious enough to brazenly display so much ego must have good reason for it. They must be smarter, more creative, capable of generating brilliant ideas, wise, judicious, decisive, conscientious, and every other attribute from A to Z. But no, it's often just plain ol' ego masquerading as competence.

If you want to find someone who could be a good leader, with better ideas, here's a bit of advice: Look in the mirror.

“It's a deep and all but certain truth about narcissistic personalities that to meet them is to love them, but to know them well is to find them unbearable. Confidence quickly curdles into arrogance; smarts turn to smugness, charm turns to smarm.”
Jeffrey Kluger


  1. Narcissists Look Like Good Leaders, but They Aren't
  2. How narcissistic leaders destroy from within
  3. Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years
  4. Humble pie: Soul food for the best leaders
  5. If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists? People are drawn to those who look and act the romanticized role of the leader. But charismatic leadership can have a dark side.
  6. Here’s why psychopaths are so good at getting ahead
  7. Why Do Narcissists Lose Popularity Over Time?
  8. Excerpt from Narcissistic People Most Likely To Emerge As Leaders: “It is important not to confuse narcissism with high self-esteem, she said. "A person with high self-esteem is confident and charming, but they also have a caring component and they want to develop intimacy with others," Brunell explained. "Narcissists have an inflated view of their talents and abilities and are all about themselves. They don't care as much about others."” Comment: If our politicians were truly caring, they could not possibly have done to us what they have.
  9. Pathological power: The danger of governments led by narcissists and psychopaths
  10. Narcissism -- To a Point -- Can Make More Effective Leader, Researchers Find
  11. The perils of a leader who is too extroverted: Moderate levels of assertiveness and warmth best, study finds
  12. Scientists say these 2 'dark' personality traits can help you succeed at work: narcissism and Machiavellianism, not psychopathy
  13. All about me: How to be a successful narcissist: Self-love is a gift that keeps giving in our competitive world – if it’s the right sort. The good news is that we can all learn to blow our own trumpet
  14. Power seekers do not see discrimination
  15. Narcissistic artists sell more art, for more money
  16. Narcissism, the seed of violence from children towards their parents
  17. George Will: ‘If Narcissism Were Oil, This President Would Be Saudi Arabia’
  18. At work, hierarchies draw narcissist job hunters
  19. Consumer loyalty driven by aesthetics over functionality
    Comment: Striking parallels to dating, marriage, and politics: people are ruled by emotion.
  20. For leaders, looking intelligent is less important than looking healthy
  21. Want to Be a CEO? It Helps to Look the Part: New research suggests having a ‘look’ of competence is important in becoming a CEO
  22. Charisma-challenged? You can still be a good boss
  23. Everyday Sadists Take Pleasure in Others' Pain
  24. Bullies May Enjoy Seeing Others In Pain
  25. Narcissism May Benefit the Young, Researchers Report; But Older Adults? Not So Much
  26. 10 Reasons You're Not the Boss Reason #1: “You don't look the part.”
  27. A candidate's looks count for far more than voters like to believe
  28. The Look of a Winner: The emerging--and disturbing--science of how candidates' physical appearances influence our choice in leaders
  29. Voters vote beautiful: the effect of physical appearance on a national election
  30. Study says charisma trumped narcissism for voters in 2016 US presidential election
  31. ‘Appearance Discrimination’: The New Racism?
  32. Why looks are the last bastion of discrimination
  33. Wide-faced men negotiate nearly $2,200 larger signing bonus
  34. More attractive real estate agents mean higher prices and profits
  35. Research into correlation between beauty and body size shows that women are harshest judges, and harshest judged
  36. 'Ugly' Finding: Unattractive Workers Suffer More
  37. Unattractive People More Likely to Be Bullied at Work
  38. Want to Be CEO? What's Your BMI? New Research Suggests Extra Pounds, Large Waists Undermine Perceptions of Leadership Ability
  39. Have you got erotic capital? “It can be just as valuable as a university degree—especially for women.”
  40. Too Cute to Fail?
  41. Beautiful People Convey Personality Traits Better During First Impressions
  42. Who Will Win An Election? Snap Judgments Of Face To Gauge Competence Usually Enough
  43. A Pretty Face Can Make A Difference In Whom You Vote For
  44. On the Face of It, Voting's Superficial
  45. Charismatic speaking strategies of presidential candidates
    Excerpt: “We found that the leaders -- both Democratic and Republican, both genders -- have a similar voice profile which is completely different than the other voice profiles …”
  46. Face Value: Looks of Political Candidates Are Key Factor Influencing Low-Information Voters
  47. Facial features are the key to first impressions
  48. 'Caveman instincts' may favor deep-voiced politicians
  49. How Much Does Height Matter In Career Success?
  50. Impressions shaped by facial appearance foster biased decisions
  51. Better-Looking Politicians Get More Media Coverage
  52. Journalists Think We Want to See On Handsome Politicians On TV
  53. Negative Cues From Appearance Alone Matter For Real Elections
  54. Presidential Debates Say as Much About U.S. Culture as Candidates
  55. Heights of presidents and presidential candidates of the United States
  56. For Presidential Candidates, Image May Trump Debate Issues, Experts Say
  57. Does a competent leader make a good friend?
  58. Hiring Practices Influenced By Beauty
  59. Lasting Impression: Does The Face Of A CEO Determine A Successful Company?
  60. Narcissistic CEOs and financial performance
  61. Facial structure predicts goals, fouls among World Cup soccer players
    Excerpt: “ … high FWHR correlates with greater antisocial and unethical behavior, but it also correlates with greater success among CEOs and achievement drive among U.S. presidents.
  62. Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined
  63. The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law
  64. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
  65. Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful
  66. Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom
  67. Bosses Who Love Themselves
    Excerpt: “ … narcissistic CEOs … deliver substandard results [and] are often paid more …”
  68. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women
  69. Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance
  70. The Face of Success: Top UK Male Business Leaders Show Dominant Traits in Their Faces based on Increased facial width-to-height ratio and perceived dominance in the faces of the UK's leading business leaders
  71. The Influence of Appearance Discrimination on Career Development
  72. The Eye of the Beholder: Appearance Discrimination in the Workplace
  73. While a candidate's voice pitch sways voters, it doesn't result in better leaders
  74. The science of charismatic voices: How one man was viewed as authoritarian, then benevolent
  75. Does Your Personality and How You Look Affect How You're Treated at Work?
    Comment: Yes.
  76. Lookism
  77. Sexual capital
  78. Halo effect
  79. Humble People Are More Likely to Lend a Helping Hand
  80. Altered Brain Structure in Pathological Narcissism based on Gray matter abnormalities in patients with narcissistic personality disorder
  81. Wide-Faced Men Make Others Act Selfishly
  82. How to Tell If Your Boss Is a Narcissist-- And 5 Ways to Avoid Getting Fired by One
  83. Why we look at pretty faces
  84. Don't smile too big to be effective in online marketing ads, study funds
  85. Narcissists and psychopaths: how some societies ensure these dangerous people never wield power
  86. June 9, 2021: Trump said he might have banned Facebook as president but 'Zuckerberg kept calling' and 'telling me how great I was'
  87. June 28, 2021: US presidents' narcissism linked to international conflict: Study shows which leaders most likely to 'go it alone'
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

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