Steve Jobs turned down liver transplant
Steve Jobs' mix of narcissism with humility was a key reason for his success, psychology study claims Reuters

Narcissistic leaders can still be extremely effective and have engaged followers if they show the humility of Steve Jobs, according to the new biography of the late Apple co-founder, Becoming Steve Jobs.

Contradicting the portrayal of Jobs by his official biographer Walter Isaacson, newly released Becoming Steve Jobs, by Rick Tetzeli and Brent Schlender, friend of Jobs for 25 years, shows a softer side to the former Apple boss. The Jobs legend has always carried with it the story of a man who was cold, often harsh to colleagues, and who disassociated himself from his family.

But the new book, which is preferred by current Apple executives, including company chief executive Tim Cook, paints a different character. It describes a Jobs that, while still displaying narcissistic tendencies, also had a humility to him.

"Just by practicing and displaying elements of humility, one can help disarm, counterbalance, or buffer the more toxic aspects of narcissism," said Bradley Owens, assistant professor of business ethics at Brigham Young University. "The outcome is that narcissism can possibly be a net positive."

Becoming Steve Jobs Brent Schlender Rick Tetzeli
Becoming Steve Jobs: The evolution of a reckless upstart into a visionary leader Random House

Mentioning Jobs by name, the study states: "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."

Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study supports the softer portrayal of Jobs which appears in the new biography. Specifically, the paper finds that when leaders self-regulate their narcissism with humility, employees under their command are more engaged, perform better and perceive their boss to be more effective, reports ScienceDaily. This rings true with Jobs, given the affection offered to him by Cook, Apple designer Jony Ive, and other who had a close, professional relationship with him.

From the opening chapters of Becoming Steve Jobs, the authors make clear Jobs had an almost unparalleled confidence in himself, his actions and his decisions. A description of narcissists by the Owens closely fits Jobs' own personality. "Narcissistic leaders are typically self-centered, extremely self-confident and believe their ideas are superior to others. They have bold visions and grand plans and often swing for the fences."

Humility can be learnt, like a moral muscle

But humility can be used to soften their characters, without dampening their self-confidence. "Humility is not meant to replace strong or typical leadership characteristics, but rather complement them in an important way," Owens said. "It's meant to help temper them, help counterbalance them.

The study asked 876 employees at a large Fortune 100 health insurance company to rate 138 leaders in the organisation on their humility and effectiveness, and then answer questions about their own engagement. The results show that leaders with high narcissism and high humility were perceived as more effective leaders with more engaged followers. Fortunately, Owen claims humility can be developed by leaders over time.

"We are finding that virtues such as humility are subject to development or deterioration depending on a willingness to practice them. In this way, they are like moral muscles."