The new Steve Jobs biography, Becoming Steve Jobs, rests on the premise that Jobs’ wilderness years outside Apple somehow helped turn a once-reckless co-founder into a seasoned leader.
Just how accurate the book’s kinder, gentler portrayal of Steve actually is, is something that will be discussed over the coming days and weeks — but a new study from Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management backs up the idea that brash, narcissistic qualities can be a “net positive” for CEOs, so long as they are counterbalanced by an added dose of humility.
The study’s illustration of the perfect mixture of these qualities? None other than Jobs himself.
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study defines narcissistic leaders as those who are self-centered, self-confident, and execute bold, disruptive strategies with their work rather than favoring the kind of incremental changes seen in other types of leader.
“However, the very traits that enable a leader to successfully launch a startup or enable a leader to emerge, can be the very traits — if not tempered — that cause a leader to derail,” Bradley Owens, assistant professor of business ethics at BYU, notes.
This is pretty much exactly what happened to Jobs during his early years at Apple and NeXT, before a variety of setbacks caused him to re-evaluate his approach to business.
“Although Jobs was still seen as narcissistic, his narcissism appeared to be counterbalanced or tempered with a measure of humility, and it was this tempered narcissist who led Apple to be the most valuable company in the world,” the study reads.
Humility is shown by leaders who admit their own mistakes and limitations and highlight the contributions of others. “[It] is not meant to replace strong or typical leadership characteristics, but rather complement them in an important way,” Owens says.
Fortunately, unlike the kind of narcissistic traits that cause people to think in terms of disrupting and “putting a ding in the universe” (as Jobs himself said), humility is a trait that can be developed.
It’s an interesting theory, which certainly fits better with the view of Steve Jobs presented in Becoming Steve Jobs than the uncompromising jerk portrayal of the late Apple CEO seen elsewhere. It was certainly a balance Jobs occasionally struggled to pull off, though, as seen from the time he dissed Jony Ive for showing something approaching this combination of traits.