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The Humble Narcissist

How a neglected virtue can redeem leadership's most notorious vice

Watching your awkward teenage self in home videos at a family reunion usually doesn’t inspire much more than an eye roll. But for Brad Owens, a Marriott School professor of business ethics in the Romney Institute of Public Management, it proved a career-defining moment.

Cartoon man cut in half showing two personalities

“In front of my extended family, I watched my thirteen-year-old self brag about my grades,” Owens recalls. “It was narcissistic, and even though I was just a teen in the video, I remember thinking, ‘This kid is disgusting.’ It made me want to be different.”

The experience years ago sparked an interest that took solid root in Owens’s dissertation and has since become the focus of his increasingly well-known research: the positive effects of humility in leadership.

Now, a series of high-profile studies from Owens and his collaborators have fueled a movement to embrace humility—a trait they say comprises a willingness to learn, an unexaggerated self-view, and a tendency to shine the spotlight on others.

“Humility has been called the most neglected of all virtues,” Owens says. “It’s only recently that psychologists and philosophers have sought to clarify and reinstate this classical source of strength as a positive characteristic.”

As Owens made humility the focus of his research, he discovered that this often-undervalued virtue is essential to leadership—and can redeem even the toxicity of narcissism.

Tempering Narcissism

If humility is the most neglected of virtues, then perhaps narcissism is the most embraced of vices—especially when it comes to leadership. It’s often assumed that powerful leaders are narcissists—excessively self-centered, self-absorbed, and great admirers of themselves, like Narcissus, the hunter of Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection in a pool.

“Narcissists are easily promoted; they’re charming, they put themselves in the spotlight, and they seem confident,” Owens says. “But research shows that narcissists, over time, are found out, and they lose their following. People realize the charming nature is actually just self-aggrandizement.”

That seemed to be the case with tech legend and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Jobs, as clinical psychologist Gregg Henriques writes, “was preoccupied with his brilliance.” Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs lists endless stories of his narcissism (for example, insulting or firing someone in front of a large group to make a point) as he ruled the most successful tech company on earth.

But what many don’t see, Owens says, is that Jobs was the perfect example of a humble narcissist. His public failure the first time around at Apple (he was ousted in 1986 and came back in 1997) gave him a measure of humility to pair with his narcissism. “His increased willingness to share credit, listen to ideas, and acknowledge past failings helped temper the toxic effects of his narcissism,” Owens says. “And it was this humbled narcissist that led Apple to be the most valuable company in the world.”

Recently, greater interest has been paid to the place of humility in leadership—and how the trait interacts with narcissism. According to Owens, the legitimizing moment for humility research came in Jim Collins’s work in the 2001 best-seller Good to Great. Collins started with 1,435 “good” companies and examined their performance over forty years. In the end, he found that eleven of these companies became “great.” His research documented how the eleven companies that greatly outperformed their competitors had seven key characteristics. The most essential of those, Collins says, is being led by a CEO who has a paradoxical blend of intense professional will and extreme personal humility.

Owens’s research zeroes in on this idea that humility actually can coexist with a healthy dose of narcissism. “Humility doesn’t have to replace the traditional leadership characteristics,” Owens says. “It’s meant to supplement all of them, to ground them, to keep them in balance.”

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last year, Owens and colleagues from Arizona State University and the State University of New York at Buffalo surveyed 876 employees at a Fortune 100 health insurance company. The employees rated 138 leaders in the organization on their humility and effectiveness and then answered questions about their own engagement.

The researchers then measured the narcissism of the company’s leaders by asking the leaders questions, including asking them to choose between statements that best described themselves (for example, “I am an extraordinary person,” vs. “I am much like everybody else”).

The study results showed that leaders who had both high humility and high narcissism were perceived as more effective leaders with more engaged followers.

“Narcissism is something people tend to condemn; the first thing that comes to mind is that it is a bad thing,” says David Waldman, a professor of management at ASU and one of Owens’s coauthors. “What we argued is that it’s not that simple. You shouldn’t treat narcissism as a four-letter word.”

Narcissism can serve a leader well, they found—as long as it is tempered with humility.

“Just by practicing and displaying elements of humility, one can disarm, counterbalance, or buffer the more toxic aspects of narcissism,” Owens says. “The outcome is that narcissism can possibly be a net positive, when tempered.”

That “net positive” is that employees can be more engaged, perform better, and perceive their boss to be more effective.

“Leaders need to be able to laugh at themselves, recognize that other people deserve credit as well, and recognize other people deserve the limelight as well and can do things that you can’t do,” Waldman says. “Narcissists shouldn’t be inauthentic, but they should try to incorporate into themselves a little more care into how they come across.” Ideally, Owens adds, “narcissism is something we hopefully outgrow with more perspective, wisdom, and experience.”

A Culture of Humility

Former JetBlue CEO David Neeleman is one who took great care in demonstrating humility. In the early years of JetBlue, Neeleman always sat in the last row while flying, in a seat that did not recline, apparently to demonstrate that pleasing the customer was more important than pleasing the chief executive. During the holidays he could be found alongside his employees, carrying luggage on carts for passengers or walking through airplane cabins between flights to replenish in-flight magazines and pick up trash.

Cartoon man imagining standing on a podium

“Most people wish their top boss understood them and their job and their challenges much more than they do,” Owens says. “When leaders show the humility to work alongside employees, to learn from them, and shine the spotlight on them, it helps develop a culture of ‘collective humility’ that is a very strong predictor of high performance.”

This is where Owens’s most recent research comes in. In the groundwork to a study published this summer in the Academy of Management Journal, he and his team carried out interviews with sixty-five leaders and team members from forty-eight organizations to examine how specific leader behaviors influence team performance.

They found when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their humble behaviors, creating a shared interpersonal team process the authors call “collective humility.”

“Leader humility is socially contagious,” Owens says. “Humble leaders inspire followers to behave that way toward each other, even when the leader is not around.”

Excerpts from some of the study interviews illustrate the point:

  • “When you get praised by your boss for doing something well, it feels really good. Kind of makes you look favorably on what your coworkers are doing.”
    —Michael, 29, manufacturing
  • “Humble leaders don’t patronize you for lacking a certain skill set. And so you tend to pay that forward and not treat coworkers harshly when they can’t do something.”
    —Sachin, 38, education
  • “When the leader admits they don’t know how to do something, it kind of frees you up as a follower to admit you don’t know how to do something.”
    —Deb, 44, finance

The effect of collective humility is a team culture focused on growth, which ultimately enhances team performance. In the Academy of Management Journal study, Owens and his team uncovered data to prove this by putting their interview findings to work. They set up a ten-week exercise that put 192 undergraduates into teams and required them to make strategic decisions in a car industry simulation created to reflect real auto manufacturing market trends.

The teams competed for market share and stock value, and each week the stock values were posted based on the effectiveness of decisions made by the student teams the previous week. Six weeks into the simulation, students rated their team on a number of variables, from team cohesion to team effectiveness.

While every team started at the same stock price ($50), teams who measured high on collective humility achieved a higher ending stock price, with the top team achieving $172.25 per share (whereas the poorest-performing team had a measly ending stock price of $1.79). Researchers found what they expected: collective humility positively predicted a team culture focused on growth, which positively influenced team performance.

“When teams have a high level of collective humility, they self-correct and self-monitor and maximize their own human capital—acknowledging others’ strengths, admitting limitations,” Owens says. “They focus on growth and development more than just avoiding errors.”

Gaining Traction

Now Owens is anxious to see how this collective humility influences teams beyond the business world, such as, say, a Navy SEAL squad, a basketball team, a heart surgery unit, or a Marine infantry platoon.

In fact, the role of humility in the military is already the focus of new research for Owens and fellow Romney Institute professor Chris Silvia. Initial findings show that for noncombat leaders, previous research holds true: the higher the humility, the better the outcomes. However, humility appears to be less effective for combat leaders.

There’s a still lot more research to be done in this area. “We have only begun to compare the effects of leader humility across cultures,” Owens says. To expand research in leadership humility across the world, Owens is currently collaborating with colleagues in China, Portugal, Singapore, India, Mexico, and Taiwan.

In his young academic career (he started teaching in 2011 at SUNY Buffalo before jumping to BYU in 2013), Owens has now worked with at least fifty coauthors on papers and presentations that have been cited north of five hundred times. Forbes, the Washington Post, Inc. magazine, Harvard Business Review, Men’s Health, the Atlantic, and the Huffington Post are just a few of the major media outlets that have covered their research.

And there is even more to come: Owens has nine manuscripts on humility recently completed with another four research studies in progress. Just reading some of the forthcoming titles shows where he and his collaborators are headed: “When Proactive Employees Meet Humble Leaders”; “Passion and Humility in Entrepreneurial Leadership”; “Modeling Moral Growth: The Impact of Leader Moral Humility on Follower Ethicality”; and “Humility, Goal Orientation, and Overconfidence.”

One line of research has him particularly excited: armed with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to continue research on developing humility in leaders, he and colleagues are now working on a paper using MRI data to see how brain waves and neural patterns influence a leader’s behavior.


Cartoon men together in front of a crowd

As Owens builds his name in the field of humility research, he is careful to remember the importance of humility for himself—with something more substantive than awkward family videos. In his tidy office on the seventh floor of the Tanner Building, Owens keeps a picture of the ill-fated Titanic on his desk. The ship’s tragic history interests him deeply from an academic standpoint and, in many ways, symbolizes the real-world importance of his research.

Owens notes that building the Titanic required strong leadership at its best. The modern marvel took not only top-notch engineering and skill but also planning, decisiveness, vision, and project management at the highest level. It’s said that at the ship’s launch, crew aboard the Titanic boasted, “Not even God himself could sink this ship.” Tempting fate, the proclamation rang with unchecked narcissism.

But, as the story goes, the crew of the Titanic received multiple warnings about icebergs from several ships the fateful night it sank. Those warnings went unheeded.

“And that’s the story of leadership in many instances,” Owens says. “People are promoted and get into leadership positions because they are impressive, accomplished, and show many of the traditional leadership characteristics, but it’s often a lack of humility that causes these same leaders to be derailed, to lose their following, and to perpetuate disaster. It took all of the traditional leadership characteristics to create the Titanic, but humility would have saved it.”


Article written by Todd Hollingshead
Illustrations by Dawid Ryski

About the Author
Todd Hollingshead is a media relations manager in BYU’s University Communications office. A former journalist, Hollingshead holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communications from BYU. He lives in Orem with his wife, Natalie, their three children, and (quite recently) a dog and a cat. The jury’s still out on how long the cat stays.

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