The paradox of the humble narcissist leader

In a business world dominated by disruption and uncertainty, firms need effective leaders in order to survive and thrive. Faced with constant and rapid change, leaders must deploy many skills and qualities at the same time.

In management research, one model of leader that has recently drawn growing attention is the concept of the humble narcissist. On the surface these attributes might seem paradoxical – two disparate attributes at opposite ends of the spectrum.

But this apparent contradiction is also key to understanding its effectiveness in leadership situations.

Why narcissism?

Psychologists view extreme narcissism as a serious mental disorder. However, many people – particularly those in leadership positions – have a degree of subclinical narcissism, often in the form of craving attention and recognition from others.

Narcissists of this kind have grand visions, love taking risks, are highly charismatic and can attract big groups of followers in a short time. Indeed, research suggests that levels of narcissism have been on the rise in recent years, suggesting that most of us may be more or less narcissistic. This could be due to growing competitive pressures in the workplace, where many see prominent performance and self-promotion as the key to career advancement.

But when big egos are left unchecked, they can also create extreme fluctuations in company performance and do serious damage.

The story of high-flying Chinese entrepreneur Jia Yueting and Le.com is one such example. Jia certainly had ambition and grand visions, claiming he could build an ecosystem with better electric cars than Tesla, better phones than Apple, and better video services than Netflix. His charm and charisma attracted huge investments and by 2015 his fortune was estimated at over $6bn.

But amid mounting debts and an overstretched business, cracks quickly began to appear. As banks tightened credit and lawsuits followed over missed payments, Jia’s empire started to crumble and in 2017 he was dropped from Forbes’ Rich List of Chinese billionaires.

Why does humility matter?

Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs was notoriously narcissistic to the extent that in 1985 he was fired from the company he founded. However, when he was brought back to the company 12 years later he tempered his narcissism with humility, admitting later that his dismissal had been “awful tasting medicine”, but one that “the patient needed”.

Indeed that return also rescued Apple from near bankruptcy, leading to the launch of the iMac, iPhone and iPad and paving the way to the company becoming a global icon.

While it is essential for leaders to be confident, powerful, and capable, humility serves as “a temperance virtue” that keeps these qualities from going to extremes. It enables leaders to admit that they are limited, have weaknesses, and can make mistakes, while also allowing them to appreciate and work with people better than them.

As a result humble leaders constantly grow themselves, those they collaborate with and their subordinates by allowing people to make mistakes and empowering them to reach their highest potential.

The magic formula of the humble narcissist

Being a humble narcissist means tempering two contrasting personalities, much like balancing yin and yang. Humble narcissists have high opinions of themselves and enjoy the limelight, but they also know their weaknesses and appreciate the capabilities of other people.

Humble narcissists are valuable because management today is filled with paradoxical demands. Competition demands increasing efficiency in existing products while also exploring new product and business opportunities. At the same time clients require high quality products with fast delivery.

Humble narcissists have a better chance to meet such pressures and several recent research studies have found that humble narcissist leaders have more engaged and better performing followers, and build more innovative companies.

With narcissism, leaders are walking light bulbs who carry surprises and excitement to attract followers. They can boldly communicate their visions with supreme confidence and remove concerns about risks or resource constraints. However, pure narcissists are so concerned about their self-glory that they neglect others’ interests and feel threatened by more capable others.

Humility helps to bring others onto their bandwagon by incorporating collective interests in their vision; endorsing management practices to recruit, promote, and reward capable followers; and empowering others to pursue visions that are greater than any individual.

How you can combine narcissism and humility

Some people, particularly from Asian cultural backgrounds, can harmoniously embrace narcissism and humility in themselves because they have a built-in paradoxical mindset that can easily harness tensions. They can simultaneously recognise their self-value while showing appreciation for others.

As a result they can be narcissistic when seeking to attract investors or clients, but humble when trying to reach consensus with board members and the top management teams. They can bear in mind their own interests and others’ interests, so they can find win-win solutions.

Yet those who are not humble narcissists also have an alternative; turning to dual leadership and matching yourself with a partner who has your missing capability. For example, if you are stage-shy, have a partner who is outspoken; if you have a big-ego, have a partner who can tell you the truth and saddle your inflated self-esteem.

In an increasingly competitive and cut-throat workplace, it appears that narcissism, and its companions such as self-promotion or taking credits from others will get you everywhere.

Research actually suggests a counterintuitive reality, that is, those who are able to temper their narcissism with humility will win them more supporters, make wiser decisions, and deliver sustainable performance for a collective good.

  • Author Profile

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    Amy Ou is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management & Organisation at NUS Business School. Her research interests include leadership and organisational culture.

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