Humble narcissism can make leaders effective

14 May, 2018

Yes, being a narcissist can be an asset - when tempered with humility

When I first heard about it, “humble narcissism” sounded like an oxymoron – after all, the two qualities are diametrically opposed to each other. But as it turns out, humility and narcissism can go together. In fact, this unexpected combination is found in many of the best leaders across cultures.

So, this week my message focuses on why humble narcissism can be effective, and how you can work towards achieving this balance.

The pros and cons of narcissism

Narcissism is a complicated thing, especially when it comes to leadership. On the one hand, it is not all bad. In fact, if anything, as more recent research shows, ‘healthy narcissism’ – which is more about self-belief – can be a good thing in some ways. Leah Hardy, in an article, Why being a narcissist could change your life, points out that people with ‘good’ or ‘everyday’ narcissism tend to ace job interviews and sail into leadership positions. There are many aspects of narcissism that you should be cultivating in order to be more successful and impactful. Surprising maybe, but true.

Take confidence for example. It is crucial for leaders to be confident, to construct inspiring visions, to take decisive calls, and to believe in their own ability to dream big and execute bold plans. So, it should be no surprise then that behind countless game-changing innovations and companies, you will find leaders with an unshakeable ambition and self-belief.

It’s pretty much the same with drive and ambition. Narcissistic managers also tend to be passionate and self-motivated, working relentlessly to achieve their goals. They look for opportunities and push hard to make things possible and are less likely to be bogged down by flux and burnout. They are not the kind of people who need to be placated during a self-deprecating phase. If anything, they probably see the more optimistic side of things.

A degree of narcissism also lends “charisma” – that hard-to-define magnetism that attracts people to leaders and inspires faith in their audacious ideas. (By the way, that is probably why there are so many narcissistic personalities in politics!)

On the other hand, this “superhero” trait also has a dark side. Extreme narcissists rapidly go from being confident to arrogant. They become closed to criticism, lack empathy and prefer to spend their time in the company of flatterers and yes-people. Uncurbed narcissism can make you dangerously myopic, causing you to ignore all other perspectives. Such leaders become vulnerable to making huge, often-irreversible mistakes. Not only do they risk derailing their own careers, but they can also cause serious damage to the organisation. They end up putting their self-interest above the organization’s.

The transformative power of humility

Narcissism can become your asset if it is tempered with humility. In his article, Tapping into the power of humble narcissism, organisational psychologist Adam Grant explains this idea:

Adding humility prevents capriciousness and complacency. It helps you remember that you’re human. Humble narcissists have grand ambitions, but they don’t feel entitled to them. They don’t deny their weaknesses; they work to overcome them.

Humble narcissists are convinced of their own strengths, but they also recognise the value of other people’s contributions. They acknowledge that someone else may be better at certain things, and they are open to learning and working together.

Research shows that humility counterbalances some of the worst aspects of narcissism, while retaining some of its best. Under such leadership, people flourish: Not only are they more engaged and productive, but also more likely to admit errors and be open to improvement.

Taking their cue from the top, team members create a culture of knowledge-sharing and growth. Asking for help isn’t seen as a weakness, and learnings are meant to be exchanged – not hidden away.

In such an environment, leaders and team members welcome one another’s inputs. Dissenting views aren’t perceived as a threat, meant to be shut down and dismissed. Rather, they are used as a tool to test and further strengthen plans.

Are you a narcissist without humility?

Are you surrounded by people who constantly agree with you and talk about how great you are?

Can you remember the last time you asked for constructive feedback? What about the last time you intentionally worked at improving yourself?

Do you actively solicit other people’s opinions with an open mind? Do you seek out experts when required?

Does your team feel comfortable sharing new ideas and suggesting changes? Or is the motto “the boss is always right”?

Honestly answering the above questions will give you a good sense of where you stand. Remember, many leaders don’t start out as extreme narcissists. However, over the years, the increase in power and prestige can go to your head. If you find that your leadership style has become excessively narcissistic, you can balance it out by being humbler.

Learning to be humble

Some people think of humility as an innate quality, one that it can’t be cultivated. That certainly isn’t true – even if you aren’t naturally humble you can work on it, just like any other skill.

Steve Jobs was ousted out of his own company after the failure of the Mac, mainly due to his inability to take criticism or alter his viewpoint. When he came back more than a decade later, his leadership style was dramatically different. While still confident in his own vision, Jobs no longer thought himself infallible. He had become more open to other people’s contributions and developed the ability to admit mistakes.

In the article I mentioned above, Adam Grant describes three different kinds of humility. This is a helpful starting point for leaders who want to cultivate humble narcissism.

1. Humility about ideas

Instead of denying flaws and acting as if all your ideas are perfect, make it a point to talk about their risks and disadvantages. Your willingness to address challenges and receive input changes the conversation – the dialogue becomes candid and collaborative. Your listeners become invested in finding solutions for the problems you have already identified. By being forthcoming about the negatives, you also add credibility to your plan’s positive points.

Grant gives the example of Rufus Griscom, founder of the online parenting blog network, Babble. When trying to raise funding for his venture, he presented potential investors with “three reasons you should not invest in my company”. He got over US$ 3 million in funding. A couple of years down the line, while trying to sell Babble to Disney, Griscom’s presentation included “five reasons you should not buy Babble”. The result? You guessed it – Disney bought the company.

2. Humility about performance

Facebook marketing VP, Carolyn Everson, wanted to be honest about not just her achievements but also her struggles. So, she made a bold “humble” move: She posted her personal performance review online for her team of 2,400 people to read. This was a way for her to say, “I know I’m not perfect”, as well as to indicate that she was open to learning.

Everson’s act of humility had a wonderful ripple effect, with other managers being inspired to do the same. Together, they helped to create an environment where constructive criticism and growth were prized. As Grant explains, performance humility “means admitting that we fall short of our goals, we make mistakes, sometimes we even fall flat on our faces”.

3. Humility about culture

 This final type of humility is perhaps the most difficult to achieve, especially at organisations like ours, where there is a strong focus on culture. While hiring people who fit your culture is natural, it can also signal a lack of humility. As Grant explains, this means you think the culture is flawless, with no scope for improvement.

To tackle this tendency towards rigidity and complacency, we can take a couple of steps. Firstly, make an effort to hire people who reflect as much diversity of thought and background as possible, within the broad framework of the company’s values. Next, organisational culture shouldn’t be allowed to stagnate. As leaders, we must make it a point to revisit it every few years, updating it to reflect the changing times and enriching it with new elements. By doing so, we recognise that our culture has room to evolve and improve. And, as Grant points out, diversification is also founded on cultural humility:

“The moment you get excited about a new background, a new skill set or a new base of experience is the moment you have to diversify again, and this requires real humility.”

Humble narcissism enables leaders to inspire ambitiousness, performance, learning, and collaboration within their teams. Narcissism can be a great leadership quality, when it is tempered with humility. Stay humble by surrounding yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth and by developing the courage to be open about your weaknesses.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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