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Tapping into the power of humble narcissism


No, “humble narcissism” is not an oxymoron; it’s a combination of qualities that the best leaders and companies have. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant explains why.

Who would you rather work for: a narcissistic leader or a humble leader?

The answer is more complicated than you think.

In a Fortune 100 company, researchers studied whether customer service employees were more productive under narcissistic or humble leaders. The least effective bosses were narcissists — their employees were more likely to spend time surfing the Internet and taking long breaks. Employees with humble bosses were a bit more productive: they fielded more customer service calls and took fewer breaks. But the best leaders weren’t humble or narcissistic.

They were humble narcissists.

How can you be narcissistic and humble at the same time? The two qualities sound like opposites, but they can go hand in hand. Narcissists believe they’re special and superior; humble leaders know they’re fallible and flawed. Humble narcissists bring the best of both worlds: they have bold visions, but they’re also willing to acknowledge their weaknesses and learn from their mistakes.

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 don’t just have more productive employees — they’re rated as more effective too. It’s not just true in the US: new research also shows that humble narcissists make the best leaders in China. They’re more charismatic, and their companies are more likely to innovate.

Narcissism gives you the confidence to believe you can achieve great things. It’s hard to imagine someone other than Steve Jobs having the grandiose vision of creating Apple. And we’re all drawn to that confidence — it’s why narcissists are more likely to rise up the ranks of the corporate elite and getelected to political office. But alone, narcissism is dangerous. Studies show that tech companies with narcissistic CEOs have more fluctuating, volatile performance. Narcissists tend to be overconfident. They’re prone to dismissing criticism and falling victim to flattery. They surround themselves with yes-men and take unnecessary risks. Also, narcissistic presidents are more likely to engage in unethical behavior and get impeached (hello, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton).

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.

As an organizational psychologist, I study leaders and teams, and I’ve been struck that there are three kinds of humility that matter.

We’ll actually seem more credible and trustworthy — and other people will see more potential in our ideas — if we have the humility to acknowledge the limitations.

The first kind of humility is humility about your ideas. Take Rufus Griscom (TED Talk, given with Alisa Volkman: Let’s talk parenting taboos). When he founded the parenting blog Babble, he did something I’ve never seen an entrepreneur do. He said, “Here are the three reasons you should not invest in my company” — and he walked away with $3.1 million in funding that year. Two years later, he went to pitch Babble to Disney, and he included a slide in his pitch deck that read, “Here are the five reasons you should not buy Babble.” Disney acquired it for $40 million.

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