With a Leader’s Signature, Does Size Matter?

In this intriguing Harvard Business Review interview, Nick Seybert (University of Maryland/College Park) describes his research on the relationship between the size of CEOs’ signatures and their companies’ performance. Seybert and his colleagues measured the signatures of 605 chief executive officers of major companies over a ten-year period and found that the larger the signature and the more name components were included (for example, signing William Christopher Lloyd Gunderson Jr. versus Bill Gunderson), the worse the company did in terms of sales, sales growth, and innovation. At the same time, the companies led by large-signature CEOs tended to spend more on capital goods, R&D, acquisitions, and CEO pay.

What’s going on here? Seybert’s theory is that a large signature is a sign of narcissism and the personality traits that accompany it, including an outsize ego, dominating discussions, ignoring criticism, belittling employees, and shifting blame for substandard performance. These correlate with overspending, lower returns on assets, and higher CEO pay compared with peers in similar companies. “Obviously, we can’t say that everyone with a large signature is a narcissist and therefore a bad leader,” says Seybert. But signature size seems to line up quite well with high self-esteem and narcissism in studies that look more deeply at leaders’ personalities. A healthy dose of confidence and self-esteem is essential to rising through the ranks, but narcissists take confidence too far. And signature size seems to be a subconscious indicator or that.

What about Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who was notably autocratic and abusive and yet produced great results? True, says Seybert, but he “also happened to be a genius and a visionary with exceptional taste. Not every narcissist is that lucky. Most people who have grandiose ideas about their own abilities and refuse input from others make worse decisions. And even the most successful narcissists, like Jobs, leave collateral damage – frustrated employees, lost talent, damaged industry relationships – that can hurt their companies even if the financial performance looks good.” (Seybert was unable to get a copy of Jobs’s signature.)

So should a company [or a school district] consider signature size when hiring leaders? No, says Seybert, for two reasons. First, candidates might read about his study and downsize their signatures. Second, we need to look for red flags in the person’s actual performance – in particular, signs of narcissism – that will be problems in the future.

“Size Does Matter (in Signatures)” by Nick Seybert in Harvard Business Review, May 2013 (Vol. 91, #5, p. 32-33), no e-link available


From the Marshall Memo #482

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With the status of schools today,, this is an embarrassment. An article replete with allusions to the "size" of anything is not only in poor taste, but is but one reason we continue to drag our knuckles as we schlepp our way to school.






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