BLG Leadership Insights Features

Kanye West & Ego Leadership

There is a big difference between being controlled by ego and appearing to be egotistical. We can look at the hip-hop world to understand how this works.

Successful rappers know the importance of maintaining a egotistical stage character that is distinct from their private persona.

Take hip-hop artist, Kanye West. His pubic personality is far different then his sensitive, calculating, nature. But that’s fine with Kanye. His egotistical front makes him more popular.

Kanye’s early tracks contained social messages about the effect of drugs in the African American community, the seriousness of the race issue, and the importance of family values.

However,  his songs that detail his decadent lifestyle that involve drugs, women, and drinking have brought him his greatest commendation. Prior to 2008 Kanye has never won an acclaimed music award and the first song he was popularly recognized for was “Good Life”, featuring T-Pain. This song proudly touted lyrics like “keep it comin’ with them bottles till she feel boozed” and “havin’ money’s the everythin’ that havin’ it is.” Subsequently, he won forty-six other music awards, none of which were for songs that were reflective of the sensibility present in his earlier discography.

Kanye learned something from this – something that all successful rappers must be aware of: fans love narcissism.

The success of a musician’s career cannot be judged entirely by sales in our information age. Music is essentially a public resource that can be accessed for free on Youtube and on online radio stations.

A rapper’s popularity is better determined by how many internet search hits they can tally. Let’s examine West’s popularity graph from 2004 to present:

Each spike in the search volume index corresponds with a significant shift from West’s socially conscious nature to self-centered egotism.

In 2005, West lost his American Music Award to Gretchen Wilson and complained bitterly about it. In 2007, West challenged fellow rapper, 50 Cent,  and wagered he’d sell more albums (he did). In 2009, West jumped on stage during the VMAs, stole Taylor Swift’s microphone, and ruined her acceptance speech.

Although one can argue that each spike in popularity is immediately followed by a dramatic drop closer examination revels his overall popularity sill grew. Kanye’s search volume index was below 0.3 in the beginning of 2005 and rose to 1.2 in 2006. It rose again in 2008 to a 2.0 and broke 3.0 in 2009.

After the 2009 VMA incident, Kanye’s sales went down. However, that didn’t last long. Kanye’s unrestrained arrogance and increased popularity culminated in the release of his newest album, “Watch the Throne.” It became the highest selling album in iTunes history.

Nonetheless, there is a big difference between being led by your ego and appearing to be egotistical. Maintaining the distinction between a stage persona and an actual personality is difficult and, often, the line is blurred by the luxury of being a super-star.

If this happens, a rapper’s supporters and audience could become alienated. This is what happened to Kanye after the 2009 VMAs.

It is well established that Kanye gets himself into a multitude of confrontational situations, but none of them resulted in damage to his record sales until the incident in 2009.

Directly after, Kanye’s record sales plunged, which ousted him from even the Billboard Top 200.What makes this event so different?

At that moment in the VMAs Kanye confused his stage ego with his real personality and decided to directly challenge a performer at a professional event.

Kanye, however, went to great pains to correct his wrong. He acted quickly and decisively. He apologized on his blog, apologized on The Tonight Show, and even dedicated a song of apology to Taylor Swift. Miss Swift graciously accepted Kanye’s act of contrition on September 13, 2010. The tactical damage control apparently proved to be effective as Kanye’s sales for “Watch the Throne” went through the roof in 2011.

For a rapper like Kanye an egotistical façade is necessary to collect and maintain a strong devoted fan base. No avid listener of hip-hop wants to hear about a rapper being grounded by his parents–which is why Will Smith doesn’t rap anymore. Audiences want gritty lyrics about things they fantasize about.

However, a cunning rapper should not allow his contrived hubris to influence or hinder his real personality or his decision making ability. If he does he will find himself making his biggest mistake… of all time.

Leaders, like rappers, should know when their egos can win them supporters, but they should also know when to quell their bravado in order to move things forward.

Photo Cred: Jason Langheine

BLG Leadership Insights Political Competence

Ego Champ

In “Champion”, Kanye West poses the self-referential question, “Did you realize that you are a champion in their eyes?”

By the final verse, West decisively answers the query: “Yes I did”.

West, often derided for his blinding hubris, certainly suffers (or benefits) from a case of acute bravado. However, West has cunningly co-opted this haughty bombast into his brand. With five platinum albums, fourteen Grammys, and a massive hip hop empire, West often flaunts his success in almost satirically extreme fashion (see tweet: “Just looking at my closet, wool suits, fedoras, trenches and furs…I’m bout to put fall in the hospital…Ima hurt the season”) (Kanye West Twitter).


With this strategic bombast, why is West so often critiqued as someone who consistently slips into a winning for the sake of winning ego trap? West descends into this Charlie Sheen-esque “Winning” ego trap when he shifts his attention to petty fights.

First, famously, at the VMAs, West leapt onto stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance of the Best Female Video award. Bleeding credibility and career momentum, West seized the microphone and announced that Beyoncé deserved the prize instead. Soon after, West apologized in characteristic, bombastic West fashion:

“I’m in the wrong for going on stage…[but] Beyoncé’s video was the best of this decade!!!!” (Entertainment Weekly, 9/13/09).

Similarly, West was arrested twice in 2008 for clashing with paparazzi. In the first incident, West smashed a photographer’s camera in Los Angeles International Airport. Later in November, he was again arrested for scraping a paparazzo’s nose in a scuffle. He responded to these arrests with a blog post asking: “Who’s winning, me or the media” (Guardian, 11/17/08).

These incidents join similar situations where West has initiated fights with President Bush, Matt Lauer, and 50 Cent. While these fights may sustain West’s brand in some fashion, they ultimately detract from his sales and sink his hip-hop agenda. Therefore, while West can embrace a bombastic ego, he must avoid winning for the sake of winning if he wants to preserve his empire.

BLG Leadership Insights Features

One Person Show

So you want to be a top-notch leader? There are any number of expensive videos, weekend courses, “Ten Steps to…” books, and personal gurus tweeting motivational quotes.  Someone is always ready to tell you what (and how much money) it takes to lead the teaming masses to greater and greater heights.  If you are already a world-renowned leader then congratulations, you can stop close this window and get back to being a big wig.

If not, then you might want to keep reading because it turns out that before you can take anyone to the promise land, before you can master the intricacies of leadership, you need to first master yourself. If your own life lacks clarity, if poor decision-making and uncertainty plague your choices, then those you are attempting to lead will be adversely affected by your personal chaos.

No one is demanding that you lead a life of perfection; such a thing does not exist, but leadership does demand that you first get your own demons and doubts in relative order before you take any action. In the words of the influential 20th century poet O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), you need to “check yo self before you wreck yo self.”

Of course Mr. Jackson/Cube may not be your cup of tea, so here are a few other luminaries of thought and their take on how self-discipline and leadership go hand in hand.

1. “The first and best victory is to conquer self.”

— Plato

2. “Observe all men; thy self most.”

Benjamin Franklin

3. “Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.”

— H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

4. “You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself.”

— Jim Whittaker

5. “Beware of endeavoring to become a great man in a hurry. One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed. These are fearful odds.”

— Benjamin Disrael

6. Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.

— Abraham J. Heschel

7. “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”

— Lao Tzu

8. “Rule your mind or it will rule you.”

— Horace

9. “It is not enough to have great qualities; We should also have the management of them.”

— La Rochefoucauld

10. “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself-and be lenient to everybody else.”

— Henry Ward Beecher

BLG Leadership Insights Leadership On the Edge

10 Must-Read Social Media & Leadership Stories From June 1-4

1. Breaking bad news to the boss or a colleague can be hard. Thankfully (and with humor) Nicole De Flanco gives us 5 easy steps to follow.

2. A great (and easy to follow) guide to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and how it relates to management.

3. Leaders have to control their ego in order to lead effectively. Here are 10 ‘red flag’ warning signs that narcissism might be looming.

4. Social media recruiting: looking for work and networking on Facebook just got easier with Simply Hired.

5. Great ways cloud computing can help small businesses (cheaply and easily).

6. WikiLeaks fights for transparency. A great example of a visionary leader under pressure.

7. Using social media to bridge the Baby Boomer / Gen Y generation gap.

8. Location can shape the quality of a person’s work. This post explains four reasons location can be a big factor for leaders and teams.

9. Great resource: The Top 50 HR Blogs to Watch.

10. Doing business in China is a challenge. We’d do well to learn form how different corporate leaders deal with the hurdles.

Picture Link: Heisenberg

BLG Leadership Insights Features

Obama & My Mother’s Coalition Strategy

“Coalition” is a word that brings with it mixed reactions. Among academicians, there has been some wonderful work done on coalition theory.  In the world of practice, coalitions are often seen as a necessary political tool to achieve particular ends.  Leaders pushing agendas treat coalitions as nuisances they need to put up with rather than a mechanism to establish a cooperative enterprise. Successful coalitions are put in place before the fact. They are part and parcel of an ongoing process. Unsuccessful coalitions are often a weak afterthought and put in place after the fact.

Imagine for a moment the differences between the coalition mobilized by George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War and the one mobilized by George W. Bush for the War in Iraq.  Bush, Sr. understood that coalitions are necessary for two fundamental reasons:

  1. Coalitions enhance the legitimacy of your effort.  When you have a coalition, your effort is seen as more legitimate.  Obviously the more people who rally around a cause, the more legitimate the cause.
  2. Coalitions help overcome resistance and spread the risk.  The more people you have on board, the less any one party has to lose.

George W. Bush Jr. engaged in coalition building as a token exercise which he felt compelled to do. He never totally appreciated  the legitimizing utility of a coalition, always fearing that coalitions would undermine his unitary effort.

There are two reasons why leaders don’t form coalitions

  1. They are afraid of what economist’s call the “free rider”—the individual who will do absolutely nothing, and in fact, may become a disruptive Trojan horse who will destroy the coalition from within.
  2. They feel that the compromises aren’t worth it.

When leaders find that these conditions exist, they will proceed to mobilize some while excluding others.  The problem is–what do you do when this mobilization fails? Can you go back and re-invite those you excluded the first time around? Maybe, but maybe not. In the best of all worlds, you can renegotiate and achieve a compromise that you previously didn’t have. But, in a realistic world, governed by ego, self-interest, and hurt feelings, a new invitation in the context of not being invited the first time is unlikely to yield a cohesive coalition.

I remember the adage my mother used to say–better to invite a lot of guests and hope that some will go home early rather than have a few guests and a number of angry people who resent that you didn’t invite them.  It seems to me that the recent healthcare summit proved my grandmother right.  Big coalitions can be whittled down to small coalitions, but it is harder to make small coalitions into big ones.

You can’t coalesce after the fact.

Picture Credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0