Psychological Theories of Leadership


What makes a great (or not-so-great) leader? These psychological theories of leadership provide insight.

leadership personality

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Our third column on leadership discusses the psychological theories or aspects of leadership, which should be most readily appreciated by us in the psychiatric field. They are derivatives of individual and group psychological processes. Here are some selective ones.

The Right Stuff

A positive trait theory for being a leader is colloquially called the right stuff. Although various traits over time have been posited as the right stuff, the one trait with a research base showing it is predictive of great leadership is emotional intelligence (EI).1 EI is characterized by self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Sounds somewhat like the desired characteristics of psychiatrists, does it not?

The Self-Psychology of Narcissism

Narcissism in political leaders has become a popular publicly discussed topic during recent American presidencies. Actually, some degree of excessive narcissism seems required to even seek major leadership roles, but the question is, how much? Very close bonds, even cultish, can develop between followers who mirror or idealize the leader, almost like what happens in some psychotherapy cases. One of the drawbacks of excessive narcissism is difficulty cooperating with other leaders, as well as being reluctant to gracefully transfer power to a successor. Narcissistic rage can occur if the leader feels humiliated, for underneath the narcissism, unconsciously, there is a low and fragile self-esteem. Because of the self-absorption of the narcissistic leader, emotional intelligence of appreciating others is usually compromised, making it very unlikely that such an individual would become a “great” leader.

Charismatic Leadership

Charisma in leadership is usually conveyed by inspirational oratorical skills and sometimes writing. In our visual age, appearance matters, too. Charisma paired with narcissism is a powerful attraction for those in need of being inspired and hopeful for the future.

Psychiatric Disorders in Leaders

Besides the possibility of excessive narcissism or a narcissistic personality disorder, there are other psychiatric disorders that a leader might have or acquire. For example, Nassir Ghaemi, MD, makes the case that a mild degree of bipolar disorder, especially hypomania, may be especially helpful in times of crisis.2 Similarly, Abraham Lincoln seemed to have significant depressed periods, which is thought to have enhanced his empathy for slaves.


Personality characteristics are only one aspect of leadership. There are also other personality characteristics (including sociopathic and paranoid), and a leader can have tendencies of more than one. Probably the most destructive is a combination of excessive narcissism with sociopathy or paranoia.

In psychiatry itself, emotional intelligence is crucial, but also compassion and curiosity. Whatever characteristics are prominent will work the most if they fit the circumstances and needs.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. To create a better world, he is an advocate for treating mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. Goleman D, Botyatzies R, McKee A. A Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligences. Harvard Business School Press; 2002.

2. Ghaemi N. First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Madness. Penguin; 2016.

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