Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

 

I blame the media, myself.

It needs characters larger than life so that it can make what it calls news seem larger than life.

To feed this need, business leaders hire PR people who teach them how to project their greatness.

In turn, many people believe that all great leaders should be like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Or, at least, how they appear: Big, bold and with a vast battery-pack of self-regard.

The real world might not be quite so simple. Do most business leaders model themselves on the media heroes? Are they all vast egos projecting their being onto every underling?

I've just been bathing in work presented by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. They run a leadership consultancy modestly named Zenger Folkman.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they pondered the reality of successful leaders' inner beings. They analyzed 69,000 managers whose behavior was reviewed by themselves, as well as a total of 750,000 employees at their respective companies.

What emerged was that the leaders thought of themselves one way and, vast surprise this, the employees often thought of them very differently.

Here's the charming part: Where employees scored their managers roughly the same as the managers scored themselves, it didn't signify that these were great leaders.

Instead, the most successful leaders were the ones who underrated themselves.

"We assume this is caused by a combination of humility, high personal standards, and a continual striving to be better," said Zenger and Folkman.

I worry about such a friendly conclusion.

This humility thing always makes the hairs of suspicion rise on my shoulder blades. If I hear  one more famous, powerful or successful person declare that they are "humbled," I will consign them to voluntary work in a far-flung place of true hardship, where Wi-fi doesn't exist.

They might then see what humility truly is.

Still, can it be that great leaders are often those who are never satisfied and always believe they could be better -- and merge this permanently tortured state with a vast dollop of I-am-so-not-worthy?

Zenger and Folkman found that those leaders who underrated themselves had the more engaged employees. They also found that those who overrated themselves on their skill levels were believed to be half as effective as those who had a clearer view of their own truth.

Here's another radical possibility: That people don't always answer these researchers truthfully.

I (almost) admire those who can participate in such research and cheerily score themselves highly. I know that America is a place where we're all supposed to believe we're exceptional, but to blithely declare it to researchers -- even if anonymously -- involves quite a feat of ego.

Equally, might at least some of these "humble" leaders have been politically astute enough to know that underrating themselves was the "clever" thing to do?

Still, when Apple's design chief Jony Ive describes Steve Jobs, he talks most about Jobs simply wanting to make products that delighted people -- a man who always wanted to push on and make every detail as good as it could be. Someone who, indeed, was never satisfied -- presumably not with himself either.

I wonder how Jobs would have rated himself. I wonder how his employees would have scored him too.

Published on: Nov 15, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.