by Professor Owen Skae

The Kim Kardashian Principle

Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right)

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While representing Rhodes Business School at a recent conference of the global Association of MBAs (AMBA) in Istanbul, I met celebrity branding expert, Jeetendr Sehdev, Author of The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right)

He had been invited to give a presentation on his thoughts about leadership from his book, which achieved instant New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller status when it came out two years ago. It has been shaking up principles and notions of leadership, branding and marketing ever since.

His opener to an audience of business school directors and business thought leaders from around the world was a screened image of ‘reality’ TV/social media star, Kim Kardashian’s much-debated, much-flaunted derriere. From Facebook to People magazine to The Sun, Kim’s derriere is regularly discussed the world over.

The question Sehdev put to the AMBA conference was: “Is Kim smart or not?”

There were naturally lots of laughs, comments and quips. Answering his own question, Sehdev said Kim is extremely smart and explained why. He said that “in a world where a big booty can break the Internet [as Kim’s has] and where the President of the United States is a ‘reality’ TV star”, self-obsession is a must-have. Kim has it in heaps and she has transformed her self-obsession into an industry that has made her a very rich, very famous woman.

The secret to her success is that she flaunts her flaws, or masterfully orchestrates her apparent openness. She talks about her flaws, including whether the size of her bottom makes her happy or sad. In so doing, she gets people to feel they know her well; they relate to her; they feel that if they passed her in the street she would stop and say “Hey, it’s you!” That’s good branding, that’s successful marketing, that’s a leadership ability.

Kim, Sehdev explained, is so much more than a pretty face and bouncy booty on Instagram, she is a mega-entrepreneur, she knows what she wants, she goes to extreme lengths to make it all happen and she appears not to care what her detractors think of her. That’s smart, that’s self-made. Not unlike Donald Trump.

Millions of people the world over continue to wonder “how a bankrupt businessman with a tanking reality TV show” managed to become the 45th President of the United States. Sehdev said it’s easy to answer. He’s the Kim of the Oval Office and that’s what a significant proportion of Americans wanted.

He said that Trump, unlike most leaders of democracies, does not try to bring everyone together. To the contrary, he is a “polarising personality” who thrives on strong supporters and strong detractors. Polarising personalities, Sehdev continued, “know exactly what they want, when they want it, how they like it, and most importantly they are not afraid to show it”.

Trump “declares his beliefs loud and proud, political correctness be damned”. No one can remain neutral about him—you either love him because he’s a “ground-breaker” or hate him because of his “gutter politics”. What has this achieved for Trump? The presidential seat and heaps of airtime globally. No US president has ever achieved more airtime. As Sehdev puts it: “They might call Trump a train wreck but he is the only president the world couldn’t take its eyes off.”

So, what is Sehdev saying about leadership today? That if you want to get to the top, whether it be the celebrity charts or business and world leadership, you need to be self-obsessed, uncompromising, unapologetic and ruthless; you need to act without any sense of shame or modesty, and you need to say and do whatever occurs to you, irrespective of the consequence, because you are not there to make friends?

“Not quite,” responded Sehdev. He explained that developing friends in today’s ultra-competitive world is not enough. He encourages leaders to act with full self-conviction because authenticity is the key to mobilising savvy, younger generations with highly-tuned authenticity detectors. Remaining true to who you are and what you believe is Sehdev’s definition of authenticity.

From this foundation, you need to develop a fanatical following, he explained. “If you want your ideas or products to be loved, obsessed over and shared, particularly with the largest sector of the population—the Millennials and Gen Z—then you need to follow the lead of the most loved, obsessed over and shared celebrity there is—Kim Kardashian, who has a massive, fanatical following and has aligned millions of people towards her vision. To achieve this, you need to follow the Kim Kardashian Principle, based on the six tenets of SELFIE. These are Surprise, Expose, Lead, Flaws, Intimate, Execute.

Kim Kardashian personifies these tenets, he explained, and they apply to whichever form of leadership you are in or wish to pursue.

Most famously, the media reported that Nike adopted the rules from The Kim Kardashian Principle to launch one of the most talked about advertising campaigns in recent history with Colin Kaepernick. A guiding principle of his book is to “sacrifice everything if you believe in something”, which Nike translated in their new campaign tagline with Kaepernick as, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

In his book, he writes: “People want to know what you think, how you feel, and what you stand for. And that is the definition of emotional intelligence that resonates with audiences today. Nothing is more compelling than a person with complete faith in their convictions. That is the sine qua non of leading ideas today. I’ve learnt it’s less about self-regulation and more about self-confidence.

“It’s not about being comfortable with others but first showing that you are comfortable with yourself. It’s not about a focus on others; it’s about a focus on yourself and your bullshit in all its glory. After all, you can’t fake chemistry, and you can’t turn on other people if you’re not turned on yourself.”

In the chapter on ‘Lessons of Leadership’ Sehdev, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, writes: “Seeing the way leadership works in the real works is a tad more enlightening than reading case studies at Harvard Business School.

“Like celebrities, successful business leaders today make their agenda personal, often dominate the boardroom, and nearly always look good while they’re doing it. Not only do they ignore “rules” and ‘expectations’, they roll right over them. It’s this inner passion, conviction, and refusal to fit neatly in a box that has redefined the world’s can-do attitude and creates a real connection with today’s audiences.

“The stakes are high, and the only way to connect with Millennials is to show them that your passion—whether for technology, medical innovation, or spreading mayhem—is real and unstoppable.

“Leaders and the breakthrough ideas they generate have less to do with old-school notions of consensus, collaboration and considered reasoning and more to do with getting things done in complex, interdependent systems in which people pursue multiple, often conflicting agendas—aka whatever you need to do in order to do exactly what you think, is right. In doing so, you hit an emotional nerve with audiences.”

Sehdev explained that CEOs, like the late Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, achieve what they do because they have a ruthless star quality, which, he says has become a requirement in business and leadership today. Neither are described as likeable people; they are described as brilliant, autocratic taskmasters who surround themselves with extremely talented people. They drive themselves and their team to extremes in their goal to change the world. Jobs profoundly changed the world of connectivity and communication. Musk is striving for a multi-planet world even if he doesn’t live long enough to see it happening. Does this sound like democracy and consensus? Absolutely not. Are they game changers, rule breakers and pioneers in the history of the world. Certainly.

Most of Sehdev’s principles are completely contrary to the servant leadership principles and ethics we espouse at business schools and in corporate governance, where humility and striving for consensus are the qualities to be admired. I personally grappled with much of what he said. His support for the movement against modern slavery, for example, seems to be at odds with his ‘dominate the boardroom’ approach. Not so, he contested. At the heart of his philosophy is freedom—freedom of individual expression and human rights. He believes everyone has the right to be free and live fearlessly without moral judgement from others; that is, unless they are doing something illegal or harmful to others.

It is these anomalies that are interesting to unravel, and it is through listening to or reading polar opposite views like Sehdev’s that we are given the perspective from which to reassess where we stand on principles of leadership, where we feel we should shift with the times and where certain principles and ethics don’t change.

Looking around the conference room at the AMBA presentation, it struck me how Sehdev had masterfully focused everyone’s attention. Whether they liked or hated what he was saying, they were paying full attention to him, which is what leadership is about.

He went on to outline some of the lessons he advocates for leadership in his book, lesson one being Fear is Your Friend.

He writes: “Fear is continuously labelled as a negative force, one that can only lead to violence, destruction, and distrust. From the get-go, we’ve been told to fight it or hide it, from others and even from ourselves. We often deny fear because we’re ashamed to feel it. People who use fear to rule are demonised as tyrants and dictators, and ideas that use fear to spread are quickly deemed exploitative and unethical. But what about the positive aspects of fear that have been proven, time and again, to help us reach our goals and protect us from danger?

“… Fear is an incredibly powerful force when it comes to connecting ideas and audiences. The most influential figures don’t deny this reality but wholeheartedly embrace it. In doing so, they build greater self-confidence and become stronger and more authentic individuals…Great leaders have used the power of fear to create culture-changing movements…

In the build-up to World War II, Winston Churchill rallied his troops and citizens by openly acknowledging that the coming conflict would have a huge death toll and cause British citizens unbearable pain…Churchill was talking to exhausted people still recovering from World War I. The Brits could have refused to follow their leader, but they had faith, believed in Churchill’s wisdom, and respected his honesty. They felt the fear, embraced it, and went back to war.”

It got me thinking about South Africa. We are tired of all the fighting, violence, corruption and joblessness. We are tired of being told how things are improving when we can all see the rot. We want our president to tell it like it is and what is being done about it. It is precisely the absence of this that has created the space for parties like the EFF to grow.

The extent to which President Ramaphosa is prepared to act on what he thinks and believes is right, and be decisive will be his and South Africa’s make or break.

There is widespread anxiety about the factionalism in the ANC and if the leadership continues to dither and try to be all things to all people, they will fail. If they take decisive steps about critical matters such as state capture, and the corrupt are sent to jail, there will be a lot of people who hate the leadership for this, but many more will love and respect them, and stand behind them, come what may.

People are drawn to leaders who get things done and we hope that President Ramaphosa will start to demonstrate this. He certainly has the star quality required, perhaps he needs to exercise a bit of SELFIE.

Following the presentation, I avidly read Sehdev’s book and found it an easy, entertaining and thought-provoking read. I also read a few reviews on it too. Forbes called it “the most buzzed-about business book of the year”. Michael Levin at The Huffington Post named it “one of the most influential books of the year”.

Even those who hated it could not ignore it. Ellie Shechet, in her review on the gossip blog Jezebel (which Kim fans might read), wrote: “Although I kept meaning to put it down and never, ever pick it up again, it continually struck me as a perfect, deranged artefact of the Trump age. Money is speech, corporate interests run the executive branch and our president is an image-obsessed swindler exclusively interested in attention-getting—it’s only natural, in times like these, that we’d get a book that frames success as a virtue predicated on ruthless self-interest and overexposure.”

She describes Trump as “an ideologically confused moron who only managed to package himself as ‘authentic’ after spending 10 years on The Apprentice, confusing Americans’ understanding of the concept”.

I mentioned to Sehdev that I was going to write about him and he said he would love to come to South Africa. I laughed and said we probably couldn’t afford him (but secretly we would love to get him out here.) Thank you, Jeetendr, for leading astray the holy cows of leadership and getting us thinking about Kim.

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