Travis Kelce’s Super Bowl behavior is emblematic of the ‘rise of the jerk’

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At the Super Bowl, the world watched as Kansas City Chiefs superstar Travis Kelce screamed and then purposely bumped into the head of his coach, Andy Reid. This behavior by Kelce, one of the team captains, reminded me of a recent reflection I had on too many of today’s “leaders” as compared to those of not very long ago. Consider the leaders from our past: Andrew Carnegie. Henry Ford. FDR. Harry Truman. Billy Graham. Ronald Reagan. Within a few generations, our model of good leadership has changed dramatically.

Now, consider the leaders of today. Take Elon Musk for example. In an X post, Musk proposed a “literal d– measuring contest” against Mark Zuckerberg after Meta launched Threads to compete with X. He previously tweeted “I keep forgetting you’re still alive” in response to a Tweet from Bernie Sanders about how the rich should pay their fair share of taxes. He told advertisers who were fleeing X to “go f– yourself.” These are his own selected words and posts.

Recently, I watched a documentary on the Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance. In it, we see a Michael Jordan who is a little different than the one promoted in the “Be Like Mike” commercials. Petty. Mean. Kind of angry. The thing that really surprised me is that Jordan apparently had at least some editorial control in the making of the film. So, it was, within a range, an image that he himself tried to curate. Or, how about a president who makes fun of disabled people or makes disparaging remarks about veterans (calling WWI vets “suckers” for giving up their lives when it was not in their self-interest)?

Worse, is that we all have become so desensitized to all of this. Hence, the jerks are able to reign without much pushback.

For me, none of that is the rub necessarily. We know that leaders are never quite what we make them out to be. However, there’s an enormous difference now. Today, our imperfect leaders embrace their weaknesses and mistakes or, worse, seem to be pretty proud of them.

The point is that, in the past, our leaders had the good sense to try to at least hide their imperfections. At least, they knew what the model for good leadership is. So, leaders became models of what we are capable of for the rest of us. We sometimes fall short, but we are working towards a construct that is good.

What does this mean for our country? Whether we like it or not, impressionable people will think, not just that this type of leadership is OK, but that it is even necessary for success. “If I am a big jerk, I too can get what these successful people have.”

Usually, I make it a point to include a possible remedy for problems I identify but, honestly, the solution to this is too complex for an article like this. I suppose it always goes back to the law of human nature–that all people down deep know the difference between right and wrong. Maybe we will drift back to that. I hope so, because countries, like companies and homes, are built on the decency of those who run them. How did it become that being a jerk is now a laudable thing? 

Brian Hamilton is a nationally recognized entrepreneur and the chairman of LiveSwitch. He founded Sageworks (now Abrigo), the country’s first fintech company, and is the original architect of its artificial intelligence technology, which has helped millions of business owners translate complex financial information. He is also the star of Free Enterprise, an award-winning show on ABC that tells the stories of formerly incarcerated individuals who dream of starting their own businesses.

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