I don’t really watch it, but the tenth anniversary of American Idol’s first show got me thinking about popularity. Millions of people watch this show, and engage with it by voting for the singers they like best. All of the contestants are vying to win the hearts and votes of the viewers. At some level they are all aiming for popularity.
Popularity is a word that we all have feelings about. It probably goes back to high school (or before) – and your feelings about it are probably shaped by whether you were in a popular crowd or were seen as popular . . . or not.
Your feelings are also shaped by your behavioral style. If you are a person with a high relationship focus, it is more important to you to be liked, admired, and to be . . . well . . . popular.
So because there are so many different thoughts, feelings and judgments about being popular and the value of popularity, let’s explore it from a leadership perspective for a moment. When people are popular others tend to . . .
- Emulate them.
- Listen to them.
- Follow their lead.
- Admire them.
- Be around them.
And we tend to be influenced by those we deem as popular.
When you think about popularity in these ways, it meshes pretty well with some of the outcomes we are looking for as a leader. Let’s look at the list above from a leadership perspective.
- We lead best by example, so if we are providing the right example, we want people to emulate those behaviors, techniques and approaches, right?
- As a leader we are always communicating. Wouldn’t it be great if others listened to us more carefully and intently?
- As a leader we are trying to take others to a new and better destination. In order to reach that destination (vision, goal, or strategy) we must move that way, and then we want others to follow us, don’t we?
- Admiration might be a little less clear, yet we know that with admiration usually comes trust and loyalty – two factors important for organizational (and relational) success. Everything else being equal, wouldn’t you prefer people looked up to or admired you?
- It is easier to lead if the people you are leading want to be with you. The camaraderie and relationship building that comes with people who are gathered together are powerful. You don’t want to be literally or figuratively tracking your people down do you?
The best leaders operate from influence not coercion. We, as leaders, are truly in the influence business. And all the factors we have just examined support and accelerate our ability to be influential.
So there seems to be some valuable lessons we can learn from popularity. Does that mean we should strive to be a popular leaders?
Not so fast.
There are (at least) two important reasons why not.
Outcome, not goal. When we do the right things, leading by example and consciously working hard to lead effectively, we will gain the attributes we’ve discussed. You will gain them as an outcome, not because you made “becoming popular” your goal. Which leads us to . . .
The paradox of popularity. Leaders who get goal and outcome mixed up and try to be popular by not rocking the boat too much or not taking a stand, don’t even achieve the misplaced goal they want anyway! You might have people like you, but in the role as leader, most everyone really want (and the organizational situation demands) something more. We want leaders we can look up to and respect, and we want leaders who stand for something and sometimes challenge us to do more and reach higher.
In other words, the emulation, listening, admiration and influencing that come to highly effective leaders is at a level above what we give to those people we see as popular.
As a leader we can learn lessons from popularity, and the outcomes of a level of popularity can be helpful to us, but we cannot make it our goal it we want to become remarkable leaders that make a difference.