Leadership: Celebrity Versus Character

With the Hollywood awards season upon us, the idea of “celebrity” gives me pause regarding my work with organizational leaders.  “You get fame. You create celebrity. There’s a difference,” notes Dr. Chris Bell author of American Idolatry: Celebrity, Commodity and Reality Television.  What is celebrity?  Celebrity is the conscious promotion of oneself.  And in American society we increasingly reward those who strive to be noticed and on display with media coverage and multi-million dollar deals.   It’s enough to make me stop watching “Entertainment Tonight” – well, almost.  But I have to admit that we consumers of celebrity gossip are creating this appetite for all things superficially juicy.

You most likely have met the “celebrity” leader in an organization at some point in your work career.  Well-liked . . . friendly . . . attractive . . . can make you believe that she agrees with everything you say . . .  that she is on your side on every issue.  Until you learn she makes everyone else feel that way, too.  How can she be all things to all people and agree with everyone on everything?  Easy.  She doesn’t have a sense of the value of her true self and seeks to feel worthwhile and accepted by creating an attractive image and/or convincing the world that she is something other than what she truly is.  A true chameleon, she is a master at adaptation . . . a true embodiment of Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest.  There is definitely talent here, and we call it politics.  But those who survive in politics typically are those who have a talent for promoting and preserving only themselves.

Think of Jefferson and Adams.  To me Thomas Jefferson, while a brilliant man, tended towards the “celebrity” side of the leadership spectrum.  Quite charming and affable, Jefferson pretended that he had nothing to do with scurrilous rumors about Adams, a man he counted as a friend, which he paid to have printed during the election of 1800.  But Jefferson’s quest for the Presidency was more important to him than his friendship with Adams, and they went for 10 years without speaking to one another due to Jefferson’s self-interest in defeating his friend.

In contrast, John Adams existed more toward the “character” side of the continuum (perhaps to an extreme).  When the British soldiers, accused of killing Bostonians in what became known as the Boston Massacre, needed a lawyer, John Adams took the case.  Not because he was a Loyalist and certainly not because he stood to personally profit (he lost business because of it), but because he believed that everyone was entitled to legal defense.  He put his own interests aside to stand for a deeply held principle, defended the soldiers, and won the case.  Perhaps to a fault, Adams routinely put principle before his own self-interest and even lost the election of 1800 in part because he truly believed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts were in the best interest of the American people even if they were not in his personal interest of getting re-elected.

While politics is a part of every group, how prevalent should it be in an organization?  Not that prevalent, I say, because most organizations purport to have a mission about something other than individual self-promotion and self-preservation.  Self-preservation and self-promotion become distracters and, ultimately, attributes of individuals you can’t trust.  To me, trustworthiness is the very foundation of leadership.

So, those with what Iacocca describes as “character” are the leaders I admire and are those I try to emulate.  To me “character” is having an alignment of values and purpose that is apparent to others on a consistent basis.  You can predict what an individual with character will do next because their actions are in tune with what they claim to stand for.   An individual with “character” is focused on the greater good, and not simply on what is in it for herself.