Size of Self & Leadership Presence

I came upon an idea from recent psychological research called “small self.” It intrigued me, and I thought you might find it interesting. It would be tempting to conjure associations linking this idea to deficits in confidence and assertiveness. Or, in the contrary direction, we might associate “big self” with narcissism, arrogance, and egoism. But that would be a mistake. Neither impulse would capture the purpose of this idea. Let me explain.

The Meaning of Small and Big Self

Awe inspiring experience[1] generates prosocial behavior, i.e., feelings of generosity, inclinations and action to help, and ethical conduct. This experimental research[2] found that awe has these effects by causing our self to feel “smaller.” Awe triggers feelings that one is in the presence of “something greater than oneself, which indicates a relative diminishment of the concepts and concerns attached to the individual self.”[3]  

How Big is Your Self, Bai et al  (2017)

How Big is Your Self, Bai et al (2017)

By contrast, feelings of pride generate an enlarged sense of self. Pride, of course, is associated with feelings of self-confidence and achievement motivation. We can see that both emotions, awe and pride, can be positive, but their effects are quite different on the felt magnitude of our self.  I am reminded of Jim Collins’ notion of Level 5 Leadership, which he conceptualized as a unique combination of personal humility and fierce determination (will).[4]

So, these two qualities, humility and will, seem to be associated with size-of-self factors. Humility is self-effacing in its effects, generating “smaller self,” and will asserts self-confident action, generating “bigger self.” It’s interesting that while affecting size of self in opposite direction, they comingle to distinguish a virtue of leadership that can be embodied in one and the same person. How does that work? Let me share a hypothesis.  

Presence as Flow and Confluence

Leaders more inclined to experience awe see themselves situated within and being part of a larger whole (humility and small self). The ways in which these leaders express their will – as a determined resolve to act in accordance with a greater good – differentiates the way their “big self” manifests. In the Level Five leader these forces converge to keep them grounded. 

State-dependent attitudes of awe and pride, and humility and will condition a leader’s presence and actions in their live moment-to-moment expression. An awe-inspired sense of duty to serve reveals emotional bonds to an organization and its mission. This amplifies the importance of mission, a greater good, and the benefits of success for all. Expression of will then reveals a big self whose size is directly proportionate to the leader’s belief in our shared commitment to perform with fierce resolve. 


The wiser we become, the more we see the virtue of small-self states, how they make room for others, for curiosity, innovation, and mission. And the more this happens the more devoid our big-self moments are of vanity, and the more room there is for a real team-oriented mindset. The reputation we build as a firm and with which we enjoy identifying is a living identity that reflects our conduct. Help build it. Enjoy it. Also, remember that that it’s earned and can always be lost.  


[1] Awe inspiring experiences could include natural vistas (mountains, ocean, forest, vast open spaces), religious, or works of art. Any of these experiences can lead to self-transcendence. They shift our frame of reference to something that evokes wonder and reminds us how small (not insignificant) we are.

[2] Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil, G. D., & ... Keltner, D. (2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations in the small self. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology113(2), 185-209.  Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology108(6), 883-899. 

[3] As Piff et al concluded, “we reason that the experience of awe is self-diminishing vis-a`-vis something vaster than the individual and reduces emphasis on the desires and concerns of the self.”

[4] In Collins' model. Level 1 to Level 4 leaders often rely on intelligence, organizational skills, charisma, or intimidation to move people in o given direction. Level 5 leaders, however, possess humility, personal conviction, self-discipline, and an unrelenting passion that inspires those around them to care about the organization's mission more than their own agendas.