Growing up rich can make you a cold leader

You may have imagined growing up in a family totally different from yours, maybe a family with more money. In this imagined scenario, you may live in a bigger house with a yard large enough to fly your personal drone, and a luxury yacht where you throw lavish parties. Everyone has their dream lives.

Growing up in a wealthier family is traditionally viewed as an advantage, because it provides individuals with dependable housing, access to quality education and better medical care. Researchers, however, recently found some drawbacks to being raised in a rich family.

Their studies [1] hypothesized that high-income parents are highly capable and independent in terms of financially supporting their children. Therefore, they feel little need to ask for others’ help or to socialize with others. This independence gradually evolves into a reluctance to care about others and, thus, a habitual prioritization of self-interests over others.

High-income parents model and transmit self-centered behaviors to their children at home. These children mimic and internalize these values and carry them into adulthood.

A wealthy family can become a narcissistic incubator.

To prove the researchers’ hypotheses, 229 alumni of the United States Military Academy at West Point were recruited to examine the hypotheses. Results indicated that participants growing up in richer families:

  • had a higher propensity to view themselves as unique and superior to others
  • were less empathetic and more impulsive
  • believed themselves to be deserving of special treatment
  • dominated in group settings

In short, the rich kids became narcissists.

Moreover, when individuals who exhibited narcissistic traits became leaders, they engaged less in “constructive” leadership behaviors, such as information sharing, intellectual stimulation and acknowledging the contributions of subordinates. As the result, leaders with high levels of narcissism were rated as being less effective than low-narcissism leaders.

Neither I nor the researchers are attacking the wealthy. Rather, the research provides an opportunity for families of all income levels to begin to be aware of and cultivate a sensitivity to the interpersonal interactions that lead to effective leadership.


[1] Martin, S. R., Côté, S., & Woodruff, T. (2016). Echoes of our upbringing: How growing up wealthy or poor relates to narcissism, leader behavior, and leader effectiveness. Academy of Management Journal, 59(6), 2157-2177.

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