I recently listened to a podcast where Professor Bradley P. Owens discussed his research that identified an interesting leadership dichotomy. Owens stated that a person’s ambitions to move up the chain of command has a narcissistic component to it. We typically classify narcissism as a negative trait. But, according to Owens, narcissism, like most characteristics, have degrees, or levels of intensity. Some narcissists are more toxic than others, such as extreme entitlement or a sense of superiority. But lesser narcissists can have a strong desire to lead and can have an even stronger desire to succeed.

For those who have attended our leadership course, you know the importance of humility in the leadership world. People want to work for someone that has the humility to say that they were wrong, that they made a mistake and apologize for it. Even Jim Collins in “Good to Great” emphasized the value of humility in leadership positions.

But how do we mix what seems to be oil and water? Humility and narcissism do not seem to belong in the same sentence. Owens contends that a reasonable amount of narcissism, one that strives to succeed, coupled with a good dose of humility, is a recipe for a good leader. This makes sense to me as it reminds me of Jim Collins’s observations in “Good to Great”. He found that what he calls level 5 leaders have two very strong characteristics – a strong will to complete the mission (succeed) and humility.

If you are a new supervisor, just know that more than likely what got you into the position is your strong desire to succeed, which is narcissism light. But you may need to practice some self-awareness and assess your level of humility. Owens contends that humility is a malleable virtue. We can strengthen it if we work on it. He also advises the following actions that can help you create the optimal balance of humility and narcissism.

1. Observe yourself. Ask if your actions are in line with humility. If you have trouble saying that you were wrong or admitting mistakes, you need to work on your humility skills.

2. Get feedback from your people (where have you heard this before?). Ask subordinates, peers and your supervisors for feedback on your level of humility and/or narcissism.

3. Admit you do not know when you do not.

4. Acknowledge and appreciate the strengths of others.

5. Seek out mentors that seem to have a good balance. You can learn from others that have figured out the proper balance.

6. Lastly, think less about yourself. To quote CS Lewis, “humility is not thinking less _of_ yourself, it’s thinking less _about_ yourself.”

Tim Jones