Great leaders aren't smug

Bosses who ask employees to do strange things get along well with staff members, but teach most of them nothing, according to CareerBuilder. A poll by the employment search firm in November 2012 asked more 3,500 workers in the U.S. to share the strangest requests made by their managers."The study shows the majority of workers have a good relationship with their bosses, where they feel supported and valued," said CareerBuilder Vice President Rosemary Haefner.One boss asked an employee if she knew any drug dealer who could "hook him up."

(MoneyWatch) I mentor senior and chief executives and often do, or see, their psychographic profiling as determined by their bosses, peers and direct reports. They're all very different, but one strand in particular interests me: how the executives rate themselves, as compared to the ratings they receive from their colleagues. What's emerging is an interesting trend: the executives who underestimate themselves perform more highly than those who overestimate themselves.

In other words, a certain modesty, humility or even perhaps anxiety makes better leaders. This represents quite an interesting challenge to a central tenet of the self-esteem movement, according to which self-belief improves performance. Instead, what seems to be more true is that a modicum of self-doubt improves performance.

I'm not really surprised. Individuals who aren't convinced they know all the answers tend to look harder for them. Executives who appreciate that there are others in the world who are better, smarter, sharper than they are may be, as leaders, more appreciative and better able to draw in the complementary talents they need.

This also goes some way toward explaining why narcissistic leaders rarely do well. In overestimating their own ability, they underperform, taking less care to integrate diverse talents or to develop their own. Extreme self-belief convinces them they already know the answers, while the less confident leaders are constantly scanning the horizons for signs that they were right or wrong.

The key advantage that self-belief bestows is that it encourages individuals to aim higher. Expectations drive (even if they don't determine) outcomes, so those who think they can go farther are more likely to do so. But the same confidence that gets them to the top may be exactly what makes them fail when they arrive. What this means for managers is that they shouldn't be seduced by the smug and the brash but should look out for the smart leaders who don't quite know how good they are. I'd bet the bank on those people.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on