When ego Trumps tolerance

Your self-belief can inspire others or merely make you unbearable


In Michael Crichton’s (pronounced “CRY-tin,” yeah?) Jurassic Park, David Attenborough’s character, John Hammond, says: “You’ll have to get used to Dr Malcolm. He suffers from a deplorable excess of personality, especially for a mathematician.”

If you have a passing interest in cricket you’re likely to have pretty firm views about Mr Kevin Pietersen and the controversy that shadows him like, well, a shadow.

Mr Pietersen can hit a ball, alright. But I’ll leave it up to such august writers like Tom Eaton and Neil Manthorp to explain his toxic influence on team unity and performance. I’ve never met the bloke, but adding him to a group of focused and skilled professionals is, to paraphrase the gone-too-soon Terry Pratchett, like putting King Herod in charge of a Judean day-care centre.

How about Floyd Mayweather and Donald Trump? Most people have pretty polarised views about them too. No doubt industrial psychologists have algorithms for the point at which such – let’s be polite – “unshakeable self-belief” as Mayweather’s and Trump’s bisects with being a useful team member; a point at which genius no longer cancels out destructive disruption.

To the outsider, some professions attract mavericks to the extent that you may be seen as unsuitable if you don’t have some physical or psychosocial foible. Perhaps if you sport too few piercings to alter the magnetic bearing of Earth, you may not fit in at an advertising agency. The sight of similar body modification may cause fund managers to break out in eczema.

There’s an unkind cliché that you can recognise an extroverted actuary because they stare at your shoes, not their own, while talking to you. I’ve met actuaries and they mostly seem like normal folk, just cleverer and wealthier than me.

I’ve also met a few who seemed a bit like Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician portrayed with Oscar-nominated  intensity by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, oblivious to social cues and obsessed with process.

Turing broke the Nazis’ signals’ encryption codes, a turning-point in World War 2, but it happened both despite, and because of, his personality. The same could be said of Hugh Laurie’s fictional, blunt, cantankerous Sherlock Homes.

Many geniuses of business, science and art have well-documented maverick personas: Jobs, Curie, Musk, Tesla, Branson, Caravaggio, Beethoven and others offset their idiosyncrasies with raw, unavoidable brilliance.

Then there’s Donald Trump, for whom any publicity is good, even the incredulity of physicists at how his hair and ego occupy the space of the Horsehead Nebula.

But again, at what point does a team stop overlooking a member’s capacity to disrupt as well as deliver? At what point does a contrarian capacity to think outside the box become a liability? Somewhere around the time they stop enabling others’ excellence at the expense of their own? Or is it more complex than that? I hope that if I was as talented and bankable as Floyd Mayweather I wouldn’t turn into an odious churl. Perhaps it’s all a carefully-crafted persona anyway.

That raises the cliché that the difference between insanity and eccentricity is how wealthy you are. Some Twitter wag quipped that the main character from 50 Shades of Grey (insert name here as I can’t be bothered) is erotic because he’s a billionaire, but would’ve been seen as a pervert if he lived in a trailer-park.

KP won’t be back in the England team anytime soon because his considerable skill is outweighed by the gravitational pull of his oversize personality, like a lead ball on a rubber sheet, but in a less affirming, nurturing way. The rest of us have to balance braggadocio and entitlement with a modicum of perspective. Business may be better for it. Hairstyles too.

William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn’t surf nearly enough


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