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Should leaders be modest?

Jeffrey Pfeffer's "Leadership BS"Jeffrey Pfeffer's "Leadership BS"

In his new book, ‘Leadership BS,’ Stanford professor and Fortune columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer takes aim at the rapidly growing leadership industrial complex, a multibillion-dollar business of books, blogs, business school courses, and training sessions that, he argues, is based more “on hope than reality, on wishes rather than data, on beliefs instead of science.” He urges a new approach, based not on anecdotes but on actual measurement of results. The book is published by Harper-Business. What follows is excerpted.

Bill Bradley, the retired National Basketball Association star and former New Jersey senator, summarized the sentiments of many leadership “experts” when he said, “Leaders should be collaborative, modest, and generous.” Jim Collins, in his bestselling management book Good to Great, also argued that “personal humility” is a trait that distinguished “good to great” leaders.

But few leaders, particularly leaders of large organizations, actually seem to be very modest.

Consider Donald Trump, now running for President, with a net worth approaching $4 billion. Trump tweets constantly, is all over the media, had his own television show, and, most famously, names all his buildings after, of course, himself.

Trump is an extreme case, but he is not alone. Many of the most well-known and well-regarded CEOs—including Bill Gates of Microsoft (MSFT), Steve Jobs of Apple (AAPL), and Jack Welch of General Electric (GE)—exhibited narcissistic traits and behaviors. Immodesty in all its manifestations—narcissism, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, unwarranted self-confidence—helps people attain leadership positions in the first place and then, once they’re in them, positively affects their ability to hold on to those positions, extract more resources (salary), and even helps in some, although not all, aspects of their performance on the job.

“Many of the most well-known and well-regarded CEOs—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch—exhibited narcissistic traits and behaviors.”

We know a lot about narcissism. A study of 392 CEOs during the financial crisis found that because narcissists tend to be self-absorbed and overconfident, firms led by more narcissistic CEOs did worse at the beginning of the crisis. However, because narcissists have a stronger bias for action and risk-taking—again a result of their higher levels of self-confidence—the study also found that more-narcissistic CEOs led firms to bounce back more successfully during the post-crisis recovery.

If organizations really wanted to select modest leaders, it would be fairly easy to do so. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is a validated scale, and it can be used as part of a personality assessment. The fact that most companies not only don’t use such selection techniques but their selection decisions also seemingly reflect precisely the opposite preference—a preference for immodest, grandiose, and narcissistic leaders—stands as an important barrier to having leaders who might create workplaces quite different from most contemporary work environments.

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine.