U04 Blog: How Narcissism Led to an Olympic Ethical Failure

What does personality have to do with ethics and ethical decision-making? A lot, it would seem, because the elements of someone’s personality often dictate how he or she will react to, and/or interact with, others in any given situation (Levy, 2013, p. 141). Will a person exhibit positive characteristics or lean toward dark side traits, like narcissism and high levels of neuroticism? Our lesson on personality noted that each of the traits that make up Costa and McCrae’s (1992) Five-Factor Model of Personality have some connection to ethical, or unethical, behavior (PSY 533, 2017). But what does that look like?

Remember last summer, when the best athletes in the world gathered in Rio for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad? Of course, you do. Because you were likely among the millions who watched Michael Phelps officially become the GOAT, or the Greatest Of All Time (Urban Dictionary). I know I watched! And let’s not forget about the rest of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. Nineteen-year-old Katie Ledecky swept the 200, 400, and 800 women’s individual freestyle races—the first woman to do so in 48 years (Brennan, 2016). In interviews, she regularly references her motivation to push herself to compete at the highest level and succeed. She values the close bonds she is able to form with teammates and accepts the responsibility of representing her school and/or her country (Ibid.). She’s clearly conscientious, comes across as very agreeable, and rarely exhibits even a hint of narcissism or hubris, the dark side of neuroticism (Fenno, 2016).

And then there is Ledecky’s Rio roommate, the equally impressive Simone Manuel. She became the first African-American to ever win an individual gold medal in an Olympic swimming event. Simone says she felt the weight of the responsibility of representing the black community, but even at the young age of 20, she handled the responsibility with extraordinary grace and maturity (Park, 2016). Like Ledecky, Manuel focuses on her teammates and working hard; she looks beyond herself and has a high level of discipline. Though not without flaws or vices, each of these Olympians—Phelps, Ledecky, and Manuel—has transformed the sport of swimming in unique ways that correspond to the positive personality traits and leadership behaviors they exhibit and continue to cultivate.

But these athletes weren’t the only notable U.S. Swim Team story to come out of Rio. Unfortunately, the other one took place far from the pool and illustrated how the dark side of charisma can accentuate vices that lead to personal failure. What started out as a harrowing tale of a hero held at gunpoint by criminals, quickly turned into a heaping pile of lies, crafted by an immature and narcissistic fame-seeker to cover up his own drunken criminal activity (Jenkins, 2016). Someone should have impressed upon Ryan Lochte that old adage that when you’re in a pit, it’s best to stop digging. First, he lied to his mom. Then, he lied to Billy Bush on national TV. And then, he sent out a slightly less harrowing version of the lie into the Twitterverse. Why? Because above all, he was enticed by his celebrity status, and he craved attention (Allen, 2016).

I don’t know any of these Olympians personally, so I can only form opinions based on the personal brands they build, in and out of the pool. Before the incident at the gas station in the wee hours of that August morning, when Ryan Lochte and his friends made a series of poor and unethical decisions, I saw all of them as extraordinary athletes who were dedicated to rigorous training in order to achieve varying degrees of personal and team glory. On the surface, Phelps, Ledecky, Manuel, and Lochte all seemed to exhibit charisma, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience—all traits that Reichard et al. (2011) and Bono and Judge (2004) correlated with transformational leadership. And Lochte probably exhibited the most charisma of the whole gang. So, what was different about him? What personality trait was either present or absent to cause him to make those fateful decisions that led to his personal ethical failure?

I think this is a clear case of pseudo-charisma, in which an extreme need for attention and fame converged with a strong desire to be an influencer or trendsetter (PSY 533, 2017). Ultimately, Lochte exhibited pseudo-charisma because he also lacked the integrity that would enable him to keep his extraversion and narcissism in check. Northouse (2016) describes integrity as a character trait or quality that implies an unwavering commitment to honesty and trustworthiness, no matter the situation or the personal cost (p. 25). He further asserts that leaders who exhibit integrity are loyal, dependable, believable, and not deceptive (Northouse, 2016, p. 25).

Integrity often involves acting in a way that is consistent with one’s core values or an ethical code. Whether implicit or explicit, integrity is essentially a universal principle in all professional codes of conduct (see APA, CPA, NASW, AMA, and AOM codes, etc.). In fact, I dare anyone to find a code that doesn’t require its adherents to exemplify some character trait resembling integrity. Even the United States Olympic Committee Code of Conduct (2011) lists a commitment to “honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness in all dealings” as its first value (USOC, 2011). The code further implores its members to, “Recognize that even the appearance of misconduct or impropriety can be very damaging to the reputation of the USOC and act accordingly” (Ibid.). Lochte’s unethical decisions represent an epic failure in the integrity category, and ironically, it could ultimately cost him the glory and riches he so desperately sought.


Allen, S. (2016, August 18). How Ryan Lochte’s robbery story went from unbelievable to simply not believable. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/08/18/how-ryan-lochtes-robbery-story-went-from-unbelievable-to-simply-not-believable/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.99c5cae02400

Bono, J. E., & Judge, T. A. (2004). Personality and transformational and transactional leadership: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 901–910.

Brennan, C. (2016, August 13). With five medals in Rio, Katie Ledecky talks about what’s next. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/brennan/2016/08/13/five-medals-rio-katie-ledecky-talks-whats-next/88683606/

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO personality inventory: NEO PI and NEO five-factor inventory (NEO FFI professional manual). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Fenno, N. (2016, August 11). Katie Ledecky unaffected by golden spotlight. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.courant.com/sports/olympics/hc-oly-swim-ledecky-0812-20160811-story.html

Jenkins, S. (2016, August 18). Ryan Lochte: A champion swimmer caught in a riptide of self-absorption. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/ryan-lochte-a-champion-swimmer-caught-in-a-riptide-of-self-absorption/2016/08/18/673d9bdc-6540-11e6-96c0-37533479f3f5_story.html?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.d13591412f81

Joi. (2004, January 5). Goat. In Urban Dictionary online. Retrieved from http://www.urbandictionary.com/author.php?author=Joi

Levy, P. E. (2013). Industrial organizational psychology: Understanding the workplace. New York: Worth.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Park, A. (2016, August 11). Simone Manuel makes Olympic swimming history in Rio. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4449687/simone-manuel-gold-rio-2016-olympics-swimming/

PSY 533. (2017). L09: Charisma. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l09-charisma?module_item_id=21902248

Reichard, R. J., Riggio, R. E., Guerin, D. W., Oliver, P. H., Gottfried, A. W., & Gottfried, A. E. (2011). A longitudinal analysis of relationships between adolescent personality and intelligence with adult leader emergence and transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), 471-481.

United States Olympic Committee. (2011, March 15). USOC code of conduct. Retrieved from https://www.teamunify.com/lscnes/UserFiles/File/USOC%20Code%20of%20Conduct.pdf


  1. Rachel Anne Moury March 26, 2017 at 8:28 PM #


    I do enjoy sports, and I REALLY can’t turn my head from a tournament. I find the Olympics particularly captivating because of the personal stories of triumph…I love an underdog. But I am also drawn to the stories of people who have devoted so much of their life to that one (possible) moment – not for the sake of fame, but for the personal fulfillment. That’s amazing dedication. Which is why I find behavior such as Lochte’s so out of character from the typical profile of a disciplined athlete. Michael Phelps had his struggles, too, when he was relying strictly on his skill and basically felt he could “phone it in.” He had given in to narcissism and hedonism himself, which eventually led to a pattern of destructive behavior that was ultimately meaningless. It led him to rehab…and back again. I was so inspired by the interview he did with Bob Costas, in which he said how his life has totally changed and that he wouldn’t have felt right leaving the sport of swimming knowing that his last effort was not his best (B. Costas & M. Phelps, 2016). I can only hope an athlete like Ryan Lochte has a similar epiphany. I think there’s a World Cup next summer…I can’t wait! 🙂


    M. Phelps & B. Costas. (2016, August 3). Michael Phelps chats with Bob Costas in extended interview [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/michael-phelps-chats-bob-costas-extended-interview.

  2. Jane A Black March 25, 2017 at 6:35 PM #

    Rachel Anne
    Nice Blog! I can tell you are a sports person, and I enjoy reading your blogs!
    Olympic athletes are leaders in their sport, and unfortunately mistakes will be made, as they are human. They are being propelled onto a world stage and some athletes have the ability to handle the spotlight, and some don’t. Any misstep in behavior is widely publicized. You are spot on when suggesting Lochte’s immaturity and narcissistic behavior contributed to his poor decision making and lies to cover up his drunken criminal behavior. The outcome of is lies and lack of integrity was far greater than if he had just confessed to his drunken criminal activity. Did he really think he could get away with it? As a parent of an athlete, I have witnessed coaches protecting their best athletes from legal entanglements, resulting in immature, narcissistic individuals, who ultimately demonstrate a lack of morals and values.
    As a representative of the United States Summer Olympic swim team, I have no doubt, they signed a contract for sportsman like behavior expectations and for Lochte it was an epic fail.

    Jane Black

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