Narcissism and chief executives are much in the news of late. Maybe it’s a hangover from the financial crisis or continuing fallout from Enron and other financial scandals. There certainly seems to be a growing interest in how proud, vain, self-obsessed, extroverted and otherwise – dare to say it – interesting characters are running our companies.
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In the latest study, highlighted in The Washington Post, Alex Frino, dean of Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, ran natural language technology on quarterly earning call transcripts of America’s largest companies to calculate the ratio between CEOs’ use of individual personal pronouns such as “I”,” me” and “mine” and collective pronouns such as “we” and “our”.
Frino was too modest to publish who came top, preferring to name Pat Gelsinger of VMware, Gregg Steinhafel of Target and Omar Ishrak of Medtronic as the three least narcissistic by that measurement, just ahead of Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson and PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi.
However, he has taken such research to the next stage, comparing findings of such research with company performance in an Australian version of the study. Over 18 months, he found that the annualised stock returns of a group of large Australian companies headed by the least narcissistic chief executives were nearly twice that of the group of most narcissistic CEOs.
This dovetails with two academic studies published in October and highlighted by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University of London in a recent Huffington Post blog entitled: “The Dark Side of Executive Narcissism: How CEOs Destroy Companies, Reputation and Employee Morale”.
In “Narcissus Enters the Courtroom: CEO Narcissism and Fraud” Antoinette Rijsenbilt and Harry Commandeur of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, compared narcissism levels of 953 chief executives with the performances of their companies. They concluded that firms led by arrogant, self-centred CEOs tended to perform worse and – worryingly – were much likely to be convicted of corporate fraud.
Taking the opposite approach, “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams and Leadership,” by Bradley Owens, of the State University of New York in Buffalo and colleagues from the University of Washington in Seattle looked at the effects of humble leadership on staff morale and turnover.
They found that the most effective way to engage employees is not to rouse them through energetic, charismatic and idealistic leadership but to quietly listen, be clear about limitations and show appreciation for staff strengths and contributions. In other words, suggests Chamorro-Premuzic, “Narcissistic CEOs may be good at attracting talent but they are probably better at repelling it.”
If taken seriously, this may spell trouble for CEOs including Google’s Larry Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They came top last September in a study by Ironfire Capital managing partner and Forbes contributor Eric Jackson of the number of times technology CEOs used “I”, “my”, “me” and “mine” as a percentage of the total of words used in questions and answers at their last four quarterly earnings calls.
On the other hand, research last August by Donald Hambrick of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and colleagues from Germany’s University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and IMD International concluded that corporate chief executives showing narcissistic personality traits are more likely to embrace disruptive technologies than their less self-interested CEO counterparts.
Where do all these academic studies take us? Can such judgments really be made from the grammatical vocabulary employed by chief executives in off-the-cuff answers to financial questions? If so, do we want boring leaders, rather than glitzy extroverts at the helm of the world’s biggest companies? Are leaders with a cult of personality like the late Steve Jobs at Apple exceptions to the rule and if so, is the rule worth observing in the first place?
That debate will continue for some while yet so let my contribution be marrying this body of thought with that of Forbes contributor Ruth Blatt, of the University of Michigan. In a recent Forbes blog entitled “Sick of Sports: Why Rock Bands Are a Better Metaphor for Work Teams,” she argues that the language from the creative teamwork of song-writing and musicianship is more appropriate for business use than tired old phrases from the winner and loser mentality of sports.TIn that spirit and also for a bit of fun, I present a playlist of ten songs for narcissistic leaders and an alternative for humble CEO types. The next time you analyse a potentially narcissistic chief executive, check his iTunes usage. Mr Gelsinger’s probably shows up a penchant for Vangelis as he told me when I interviewed him that his favourite movie is Chariots of Fire. His favourite book meanwhile, is The Bible. I’d love to see the personal pronoun ratios for that.
Ten Songs for Narcissistic CEOs
I and I – Bob Dylan
Me Myself I – Joan Armatrading
I Me Mine – The Beatles
I Am What I Am – Gloria Gaynor
It’s All About Me – Chelsea Staub
What About Me? – Moving Pictures
I Love Myself – Chris Brown
I Am Superman – REM
Leader of the Pack – Gary Glitter
Don’t Stop Me Now – Queen
And Ten For Humble Leaders
This Is Not About Me – The Boo Radleys
It’s All About You – McFly
I Am Nothing- Katatonia
Nothing Compares to You – Sinead O’Connor
We Are What We Are – The Other Ones
We’re All In This Together – High School Musical
Us and Them – Pink Floyd
Come Together – The Beatles
Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
Are We All We Are? – Pink
Do contribute your own favourites and follow me here and on Twitter @Andycave