Leadership and Narcissism, or Things We Can Learn From Kanye West

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Apr 3, 2014

Few musicians are as successful, or as polarizing, as Kanye West.

For the uninitiated, West is a giant in the modern music industry. He is the fifth most nominated and eighth most award-winning artist in the history of the Grammy Awards, holding 51 nominations and 21 wins, as well as countless accolades from the American Music Awards, MTV Music Awards, Billboard Awards, and others.

As successful as West has been, however, he is equally well known for his hubris, including choice quotes to the press (“…respect my trendsetting abilities. Once that happens, everyone wins”), inflammatory tweets (“…the second verse of New Slaves is the best rap verse…OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD.), and, of course, the infamous Taylor-Swift-microphone-stealing incident, the apology for which he later recanted.

What does any of this have to do with leadership?

In the age of the rock star CEO (Jack Welch, Sir Richard Branson, the late Steve Jobs, etc.), humility isn’t a characteristic we often encounter. However, people with low self-confidence hold several advantages over their more confident counterparts.

The upside of narcissism

Although West started his career producing albums for hip-hop giants like Jay-Z, he never seemed to doubt he was destined for fame, reportedly telling Sony Studios record executives he was going to be bigger than Michael Jackson.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy sense of self-worth, and early in peoples’ careers, narcissism can go a long way toward helping them advance through the ranks.

Our research shows that people with higher narcissistic tendencies are more likely to be seen as knowledgeable about their industry, excellent at taking initiative, managing their performance, and achieving results,” said Dr. Jeff Foster, a research psychologist and vice president of science at Hogan Assessments.

The dangers of self-confidence

“Confidence is important, but the more self-confident you are, the more critically people will judge your competence,” said Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, vice president of research and innovation at Hogan. “If you act modestly, on the other hand, even if it is faked modesty, people tend to add 20-30 percent of competence to your claim.”

West’s confidence proved at least mildly toxic. His latest album, Yeezus, received mixed reviews, and although it was certified platinum, it experienced the fourth-largest drops in second-week sales in Billboard’s history. Additionally, tickets to the supporting tour were reportedly low.

For leaders, narcissism can lead to blind spots that can damage or completely derail their careers.

“Many people get trapped in their optimistic biases, so they tend to listen to positive feedback and ignore negative feedback,” said Chamorro-Premuzic, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

“Excessive confidence threatens self-awareness and self-knowledge,” Chamorro-Premuzic said in an interview with The Fast Track. “Most people think they are better at pretty much anything than they actually are, and this confidence surplus leads to arrogant and narcissistic decisions.”

Faking modesty

For many business leaders, modesty doesn’t come easily. In that case, says Chamorro-Premuzic, the best course of action is to fake it until you make it.

“Here’s my advice,” Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in his book, Confidence. “When you are competent, fake modesty.”

So, how does one fake modesty? John Baldoni, chair of the leadership development practice at N2Growth, wrote in an HBR blog that there are three keys to displaying humility at work:

  1. Temper authority – Leaders should avoid pulling rank with their employees. People have a basic need to control their destiny, to have autonomy and access to resources. Allowing employees some degree of control over their work goes a long way.
  2. Promote others – Baldoni wrote, “a characteristic of successful managers is their ability to promote others, sometimes to positions higher than their own.”
  3. Acknowledge what others do – University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant put it perfectly: “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

The Bottom Line

Our society worships those who worship themselves, and individuals who are overly modest or unwilling to self-promote are unlikely to succeed.

However, the negative consequences of hubris are well documented – more than 60 percent of employees dislike their jobs, the most common reason for which is a narcissistic boss.

With some self-awareness, leaders can use their narcissistic tendencies to climb the corporate ladder to the top, and humility to stay there.