Uncertainty in the business world provides a ripe opportunity for narcissists — people who have a grandiose conception of themselves, are self-obsessed, and crave authority and control — to emerge as leaders. Narcissists are great at accumulating power and influence and their confidence and charisma create the illusion of them being the best person for the job when predictability is low.

Given this, it’s not surprising that narcissistic leaders can be found in multiple positions of authority throughout organizations. Not only does this fulfill their desire for power but also gives them the opportunity they seek to show off, and validate that they are at the centre of the universe. While narcissistic leaders can be productive and accomplished, over time, their need for continual admiration, acting in their own interest and putting the needs and interests of others at risk can destroy productivity, group morale, and organizational culture.

We recently conducted a study to understand narcissistic leaders and who is most likely to follow them. We addressed this question by applying modern computing techniques to create an algorithm that helped us infer narcissism and personality traits of leaders and followers based on their Twitter posts (436 leaders with a combined 49,644 followers). Each of us reveals hints about our personality from the textual data we leave behind when we post or engage in conversations with others online.

We defined leaders as individuals who are followed online by others. Consistent with our definition, the majority of the people we called leaders actually held leadership positions in corporate America. Followers were defined as anyone who engaged with a leader’s posts on a regular basis over time. We included leaders and followers who had interacted a minimum of four times from January 1, 2018 to November 15, 2019.

We then used linguistic analytics to infer people’s personality traits. Linguistic analytics describes the use of software to analyze and study language, oftentimes in social media posts. In this study, we examined leaders’ and followers’ word choice, word order, sentence structure, as well as expressed emotions and tone in posted tweets. These characteristics were used to create a profile of the person’s personality.