It takes a certain amount of narcissism to claw your way up the ranks of a company. But it takes as much humility to be successful once you’re there.
Executives who curb their confidence in their vision by admitting mistakes and limitations and acknowledging the contributions of others tend to command the most respect and loyalty from their teams, who thereby deliver results, according to a new study from Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management. However, humility, like meditation or golf, may take some practice.
And even so, narcissism is often a necessary tool for success -- as it was for the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, whose obsessive commitment to his vision for the iPhone maker helped shape it into the world's most valuable company.
“Humility is not meant to replace some of the quintessential aspects of leaders,” Bradley P. Owens, assistant professor of business ethics at the university, told The Huffington Post. “It’s meant to supplement and buffer them from the extremes of narcissism.”
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, surveyed 876 employees at a large Fortune 100 health insurance company and asked them to rate 138 leaders in the company on their humility and effectiveness, and how motivated the employees were by their supervisors.
Researchers measured the narcissism of the leaders by asking them to describe themselves by choosing between statements such as “I am an extraordinary person,” or “I am much like everybody else.”
“The leaders that performed the best were those who had high narcissism and high humility,” Owens, the lead study author, said.
As a real-life example of how narcissism and humility can mix successfully, Owens pointed to the portrayal of Steve Jobs in the new biography Becoming Steve Jobs, penned by journalists Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli.
The book, released Tuesday, chronicles the tech titan’s humbling years after his first run at Apple, which ended with the board firing him. Roughly a decade later, Jobs returned to the company and led it in a stunning turnaround. Paired with the findings from Owens’ study, this telling appears to link the softening of Jobs’ initial hotheaded abrasiveness with Apple's rise to global dominance.
Until he was fired in 1985, Jobs was known for being extremely demanding on people around him, including then-CEO John Sculley.
“That was part of his greatness,” William Simon, co-author of iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, told ABC News in 2011. “But he drove people too hard. ... Being gentle was not part of his demeanor.”
By the time Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he had learned to balance his leadership style.
“When he came back in his second stint, people described him as someone who was still narcissistic, but had learned to temper his narcissism in important ways,” Owens said. “That’s why Steve Jobs was really a great example of what we were looking for.”
That means, too, that humility can be a learned skill.
"Even if you have a narcissistic leader, and in a sense it's causing them to be less effective in certain ways, people can proactively practice virtues like humility and develop their character," Owens said. "Over time, it will begin to stick and enhance their leadership effectiveness.