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

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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.

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7 Jay-Z Leadership Quotes

Jay-Z the self-proclaimed “greatest rapper alive” may seem like an unlikely source to turn to for leadership wisdom. However, the man who taught Barack Obama how to “get that dirt off your shoulder” (Obama quoted Jay-Z’s 2003 hit “Dirt off Your Shoulder” during the 2008 primary) is also CEO of Roc Nation and former CEO of Universal Music Group’s Def Jam label .

Jay Z’s legal name is Shawn Carter and under his leadership Def Jam enjoyed a period of financial and artistic prosperity. Carter not only released successful albums, but he discovered a bevy of young, successful, talent like Ne-Yo, Rihanna, and Kanye West.

Carter began his music career and started his own company when he and his friends, Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, founded Roc-a-Fella Records and released Jay-Z’s first album. The company was acquired by Def Jam and in 2005 and Carter was appointed CEO.

In 2008, Carter left Def Jam and formed Roc Nation, a multi-armed entertainment company in partnership with live-event giant, Live Nation.  Forbes Magazine lists Jay-Z’s current net worth at $450 million.

So what does the man who once boasted in one of his raps, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man,” have to say on the subject of leadership?

Surprisingly, a lot.

Here are the top 7 Jay-Z  Leadership Quotes:

1. “Managing people is really difficult. Everyone has their own personality and their own idea of how everything should go. Then you got friends that’s fuedin with each other and you have to be the peacemaker. And the more people you have the tougher it is. But I don’t have a goal to be liked. I want people to relax and just focus on what’s important…” – Rolling Stone, December 2005

2. “I will not lose, for even in defeat, there’s a valuable lesson learned, so it evens up for me.” – From the song, Blueprint 2.

3. “Be water. If you pour water in a cup, it takes the shape of a cup. If you pour it in a teapot, it takes the shape of a teapot. Be fluid. Treat each project differently. The best style is no style. Because styles can be figured out. And when you have no style, they can’t figure you out.” – Rolling Stone, December 2005

4. “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of not trying” – From the song, Beach Chair

5. “I believe excellence is being able to perform at a high level over and over.” – Oprah Masterclass Documentary

6. “I’m far from being God/ but I work… hard.” –From the song, Breathe Easy

7. “I was forced to be an artist and a CEO from the beginning, so I was forced to be like a businessman because when I was trying to get a record deal, it was so hard to get a record deal on my own that it was either give up or create my own company. “