Humble CEOs may be the new prize, but they are in short supply and face distinctive challenges, writes…
Humility is the latest badge of virtue for those in positions of influence.
Rather, when faced with adversity, humble CEOs sacrifice their own interests for the greater good.
Studies echo the intuition that humble leaders are more modest, emotionally stable, and eager to learn.
Unsurprisingly, they are less likely to display self-aggrandizing traits such as narcissism.
But despite humility being good for business, it’s extremely difficult for CEOs to be genuinely humble.
Success culls humility
A distinctive strength of humble leaders is self-awareness – confidence in their abilities paired with accurate self-appraisal of their limitations.
Yet, people often overestimate their virtues while underestimating their limitations.
A key reason for this is that CEOs are – as a byproduct of their career success – highly confident.
The confidence that accrues with career success is important for leading an organisation.
Yet, success is a mixed blessing.
The same string of career wins may also lead CEOs to over-appraise their strengths without attributing the role of other factors, such as luck, in their achievements.
Such overconfidence can even harm organisations.
Acting “like a CEO”
If finding an authentically humble CEO candidate is rare, looking at the personality profiles of people who want to be CEOs complicates matters further.
Research shows certain jobs attract people with specific personalities.
Recruiters in turn rely on judgements, oftentimes subjective, of how a candidate’s personality will fit the job and the organisation.
CEOs tend to score higher than the general population on personality attributes such achievement-orientation, ambition, assertiveness, and risk-preference.
Individuals with some, or a combination, of these traits may be particularly adept at pretending to fit ideal criteria for a specific role.
For instance, studies show that narcissists are particularly skilled at appearing charismatic at first sight.
Charisma, in turn, has long been considered a desirable feature of CEOs.
CEOs perceived as charismatic, accordingly, receive higher pay.
Genuine humility may thus be a scarce personality feature among candidates for CEO positions.
Hurdles to leading with humility
Although this might work for more considered and analytical decisions, it may come at the cost of speed.
High-performing firms are often characterised by an ability to make decisions quickly.
In fact, some evidence suggests that more narcissistic CEOs may be quicker in making judgement calls, for instance, about adopting new technologies.
CEOs are also expected to provide precise forecasts of an uncertain future.
However, managers often engage in herd behavior in the face of uncertainty, and firms often end up imitating each other.
By virtue of their self-awareness, humble CEOs can be expected to issue more realistic expectations that may deviate from collective overoptimism.
However, analysts tend to rate optimistic forecasts more favourably.
As such, humble CEOs may be penalised for conveying more conservative, albeit more realistic, forecasts.
If this is the case, then some CEOs may become more humble as they get closer to retirement.
However, the purported benefits of age and experience may be offset by other tendencies that emerge during later career phases.
Equipping organisations with the right leadership attributes is crucial for success.
Humility is a precious, but rare, commodity in the executive suite.
Staying genuinely humble through progressive stages of high achievement is difficult for CEOs.
Those who are authentically humble, in turn, face distinct challenges that may trump the benefits of their humility.
Humility is at risk of becoming the latest leadership buzzword.
Organisations that manage to find an authentically humble CEO, however, may just have an edge.
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