In 1985, the man who would become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in human history hit rock bottom. He had created products that would become ubiquitous — on every desktop and, eventually, in every pocket — but hadn’t quite figured out how to get the public interested. Sales were disappointing. He was marginalized, exiled to an office he referred to as “Siberia.” And, eventually, he resigned.
Steve Jobs was just 30 years old.
“I was out — and very publicly out,” Jobs later said of the time he was, more or less, fired by Apple. “What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. … I was a very public failure.”
Brought low by the experience, Jobs returned to Apple with a new attitude in 1997 — and the rest is iHistory. Today, four years after Jobs’s death, Apple is the world’s most valuable company, worth more than $700 billion.
And, according to a new study, the house Jobs built might never have been without its architect’s public shaming. In “Leader Narcissism and Follower Outcomes: The Counterbalancing Effect of Leader Humility,” published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that bosses are more successful when they mix their self-involvement with humility, as Jobs learned to do after he was humiliated.
“Narcissistic leaders who behave humbly may help to prevent their narcissism from damaging their leadership effectiveness,” the authors wrote. “Our study suggests that effective leaders are more likely to be those individuals who learn to harmonize what may initially seem to be disparate leadership qualities.”
Though it didn’t turn out well for Narcissus — the hunter of Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection in a pool and subsequently drowned — narcissism is not necessarily a bad thing in dog-eat-dog American capitalism. Defined in the study as a “complex of personality traits and processes that involve[s] a grandiose yet fragile sense of self as well as a preoccupation with success and demands for admiration,” narcissism can get results. Business leaders — Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Donald Trump — are often totally self-involved, eager to push their vision and their products on the masses.
But a shot of ego goes down more smoothly — and can get better results — with a very different kind of chaser.
“When narcissism worked in tandem with expressions of humility, it fostered the best outcomes,” Bradley P. Owens, an assistant professor at the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
Owens and his co-authors surveyed more than 800 employees of a “Fortune 100 health insurance organization headquartered in North America,” asking what they thought of their bosses. Meanwhile, bosses rated their employees and completed tests designed to suss out narcissistic tendencies and humility. (Sample question: Choose which statement better describes you — “I am an extraordinary person” or “I am much like everybody else.”)
The result: The humble narcissists were liked by their employees, and their employees did a better job. “The interaction of leader narcissism and leader humility is associated with perceptions of leader effectiveness, follower job engagement, and subjective and objective follower job performance,” as the study put it.
The study also cited Jobs as a prominent example of this leadership model. Start-ups, Owens said, demand bluster. But more mature companies demand more mature behavior.
“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,” according to the study.
Owens said Jobs’s ouster is what led him to think less about his products and more about the people making them — which, in turn, led to better products.
“What we are kind of finding is that there are some narcissists who wake up and say, ‘This is toxic — this isn’t working,’ ” Owens said. “They try to self-regulate their narcissism socially. Humility really helps. Nobody’s been through the transition quite like Jobs.”
This is not a minority opinion. Many have opined that the kinder, gentler Jobs 2.0 was better than the more obnoxious, less Zen Jobs 1.0 — the man who asked a soda executive brought in to help Apple: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”
“He had become a far better leader, less of a go-to-hell aesthete who cared only about making beautiful objects,” Fortune wrote of Jobs’s return to the company. “Now he was a go-to-hell aesthete who cared about making beautiful objects that made money.”
Apple investor Arthur Rock, quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography “Steve Jobs,” put it more simply.
“The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him,” he said.