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Wealthy children don't grow into the best leaders: Study

Children of wealthy families are prone to high levels of narcissism, which can make them less effective leaders when they grow up, a new study has found.

The results, published Monday in the Harvard Business Review, found that leaders who grew up in wealthier households had greater levels of self-importance, and lower levels of empathy for others.

"We found that parental income is significantly related to adult levels of narcissism, a trait characterized by grandiose self-views, impulsive tendencies and low empathy," said the study, written by Sean R. Martin, Stephane Cote and Col. Todd Woodruff.

"We also found that those levels of narcissism were associated with people's engagement (or lack thereof) in important leadership behaviors and various measures of effectiveness."

The authors studied a sample of active U.S. Army soldiers who graduated from West Point and are now in leadership roles. They collected information from the soldiers' West Point applications detailing their parents' incomes, and sent participants a survey of questions designed to calculate their levels of narcissism.

Respondents were also rated by their subordinates on traits including their concern for people who report to them, their behaviors and communication.

The researchers received complete data for 229 soldiers. When they combined all these points, they concluded that soldiers from well-to-do families were less engaged in important leadership behaviors.

"Higher parental income indirectly impaired leadership performance by fostering narcissism," the report said.

Of course, the study is limited to the Army, so it's unclear whether corporate or workplace leaders who grew up rich are also prone to wealth-induced narcissism. And the income test — student applications to West Point — may not be the most scientific.

As the study acknowledges, "We need more research to explore how this link relates to peoples' behaviors in organizations and to explore those dynamics in other contexts."

Still, the authors said their findings "complement a growing body of work that suggests high income has potential downsides."