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Leadership expert: The problem with President Trump's narcissism

Daniel Roberts

Andrew Kerr, a former tech executive at Hospital Corporation of America, began studying business leaders a few years ago across many industries, including healthcare, politics, and sports. He saw how frequently “they’d put in the work, and achieve a certain level of success, and then all of a sudden they would make a critical mistake, and often it was a self-inflicted wound… And I sort of got tired of this story, I got tired of seeing people rise and then all of a sudden trip up over themselves.”

He determined that what these leaders lacked was humility, and he began teaching a course on the topic that led to his book, “The Humility Imperative: Why The Humble Leader Wins in an Age of Ego.” The book is particularly relevant right now to recent business news like the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick or the fall of red-hot biotech startup Theranos.

“When you look at Silicon Valley, a lot of outsized egos out there,” says Kerr. “Certainly to be a leader, you have to be confident. And you can be aggressive, and you can be bold, but you want to be aggressive and bold on behalf of your organization, not for yourself. Ask the folks that worked at Theranos or Uber if they wish their leaders had had more humility over this past year. I think you would get a pretty positive answer.”

There’s someone else you might think Kerr’s book could apply to: President Donald Trump, whose first year in office has been characterized by “fire and fury,” often in the form of tweets calling out world leaders or criticizing NFL team owners, to name just two examples.

“I wrote the book during the election season, and that subtitle about the age of ego, that was certainly on my mind during the election season,” Kerr says.

President Donald J. Trump. (WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES)
President Donald J. Trump. (WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES)

Yahoo Finance asked Kerr for his analysis of Trump’s level of humility. He says Trump is charismatic, but also narcissistic—and that’s dangerous to the organization he leads, which is now the US government.

“He fits into this category of what we call a charismatic leader—these are typically leaders that are very bold, they’re eloquent communicators, but they lead by force of their personality. And for better or for worse, these are the type of leaders that we tend to promote and we tend to elect,” Kerr says.

“The downside with the president is if you look at him and study him, you see that he has a lot of qualities of a narcissist. We used to actually say this is okay for CEOs to be somewhat narcissistic, because it makes them very driven. Well, better research has come out and said that these narcissistic leaders have a couple tendencies that really put their organization at a disadvantage.”

Kerr continues, “They’re very sensitive to social praise and criticism. Look at Twitter. And they’re not very sensitive to objective measures of their performance—they don’t really care how they’re actually doing, it’s just the perception of how they’re doing. The last one that you can really see is narcissistic leaders tend to have really high boom and bust cycles.”

Are there examples out there right now of more obviously humble leaders? They’re hard to find, says Kerr, who now works as a partner at a tech consultancy in Nashville, Tenn., called FortyAU. Humble leaders are more rare, Kerr says, because the truly humble ones don’t get as much press attention—because they don’t seek it. He does believe new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is one example.

“They’re not as well known, they don’t get as much press, and yet they outperform the market by three times what their competitors did who were celebrity CEOs,” he says. “That’s why I’m trying to say, Hey, this is actually not a ‘nice to have’ for leaders, it should be an imperative for every leader to look at their humility.”

Daniel Roberts covers sports business, tech, and media at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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