The least narcissistic American CEOs

December 27, 2013
An Australian business school dean's research of U.S. CEOs finds that Marillyn Hewson, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., is one of the 10 least narcissistic CEOs among large U.S. companies. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
An Australian business school dean's research of U.S. CEOs finds that Marillyn Hewson, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., is one of the 10 least narcissistic CEOs among large U.S. companies. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The dean of a business school in Sydney, Australia has named the 10 least narcissistic CEOs in the United States. Three of the 10 are women.

Alex Frino, the dean of Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, used natural language technology to scour quarterly earnings call transcripts of the 100 largest American companies to calculate the ratio between how frequently CEOs use the pronouns "I," "me" or "mine" versus "we," "our" or "ours." Ranking the CEOs in his sample by that metric, he was able to compile a list of apparent CEO humility that named Pat Gelsinger (CEO of VMware), Gregg Steinhafel (CEO of Target) and Omar Ishrak (CEO of Medtronic) as the three least narcissistic by that metric.

TJX CEO Carol Meyrowitz (which owns TJ Maxx), Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi are the thee women on the list. There are also a few who could never be mistaken as low-profile (casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of Las Vegas Sands, is on the list) or easy-going (so is Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, who one BofA director told Fortune wasn't "the cuddliest guy in the world").

So have these CEOs' just better rehearsed their remarks? Frino left out the prepared scripts at the beginning of CEO's earnings calls to try to get around that possibility, and only used the off-the-cuff question and answer session with analysts in his analysis. Frino isn't the only researcher to show the link between use of individual personal pronouns and narcissism—many other researchers have made the correlation.

The next step in Frino's research is to look at the link between his narcissistic metric for U.S. CEOs and company performance. It's an analysis he's already done in Austalia, where he found that the group of large Australian companies headed by the least narcissistic chief executives had annualized stock returns that were nearly twice that of the group of most narcissistic CEOs for the period of September 2011 to March 2013.

He's careful, though, to note that his study was done in a tough economic environment, and that narcissism can be a good thing in certain times, pointing to a 2000 article about CEO narcissism in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Maccoby. "He says narcissists are not necessarily bad," Frino told me in an interview. "When you’ve got a lot of upside risk in the market, a narcissist can be very inspirational. They are good risk takers. But if you’ve got tough tradition conditions, you need someone who’s more cautious." Other research has also shown an upside of narcissism.

Despite that, Frino is mum on the question we all want to know: Who ended up at the bottom of his ranking? He's not saying.  "We've shied away from publishing that," Frino said. "I don’t think a CEO would appreciate it." No, we're sure they wouldn't.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Good news for CEOs with big egos?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | December 26, 2013