It’s late on a Sunday night in October 1996. In a crowded basement on Hoxton Square, East London, around 300 people have crammed together to dance, drink, smoke (because we could back then) and listen to DJ and Metalheadz co-founder Goldie spin his trademark jungle drum and bass.
Apart from the flashing visuals, there’s not much colour in the room, the crowd, made up of students, artists and anyone else who doesn’t have to get up on Monday morning, is a heaving sea of sweaty faces, dark jackets, dark t-shirts.
The music keeps playing, the volume louder if anything, but in the corner of the room, there’s a ripple through the crowd, and the dancing is momentarily more subdued. Heads turn. For a minute or two, all eyes rest on the beautiful, pale face, the cheekbones dusted with glitter, the beautiful slanted eyes, fringed with jet black hair.
Bjork is only in the Blue Note for a short time but, in her unexpected presence, everything changes. For a moment, a sweaty local venue becomes a celebrity hangout and a routine Sunday night turns into a lifelong memory.
You don’t need to be a Brit Award winning, internationally-acclaimed popstar to make this sort of entrance, but it probably helps.
Drama queens and kings
Tudor Pickard, who writes about leadership on his blog, picks up on a story told by Meryl Streep in the LA Times; the actress remembers her days at Yale Drama School, when the students were asked how they would go about playing a king:
“And everybody said, ‘Oh you are assertive,’ and people would say, ‘Oh you speak in a slightly deeper voice.’ And the teacher said, ‘Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in.’ The atmosphere changes. It’s all up to everybody else to make you king. I thought that was really powerful information.”
Tudor asks, are drama and leadership really that far apart?
Certainly trade unionist Keith Grint, in “The Arts of Leadership”, believes that a key part of leadership is the ‘performance art’ – persuading others to follow you through the strength of your actions.
Chances are, we’ve all had a boss who makes us cringe when he/she walks into the room, or a gorgeous work colleague who makes our hearts leap. The emotional impact other people have on us, and vice versa, is the driving force behind mainstream psychotherapy as well as less-scientific practices such as NLP.
The charismatic leader whose entrance causes a roomful of people to quieten, whose very presence sparks a current of excitement through a crowd, is the type of leader we’re conditioned to cry out for. As Cass Business School’s David Sims has said on this blog, their existence feeds a deep need within us.
This need generates the sort of mild hysteria that has people saying Barack Obama is the new Messiah (if you search for Barack Obama + Jesus on Google you’ll get over 6m results) or that Gordon Brown is saving the world (Gordon Brown + saving world = 396,000 results).
Like Tudor, I agree with the idea of a highly reciprocal, co-dependent relationship between leaders and followers, but rather than build up great leaders, we should ask ourselves where we can help them lead. In other words, as one of the world’s more charismatic leaders would have it, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (John F Kennedy, 1961). Meanwhile, leaders themselves can start thinking about how to empower others.
The end of the office ‘celebrity’
Actions speak louder than words and I agree that all the best leaders should and do lead by example. But, in the book, I’m interested in toning down the ‘’performing’ side of things. In my view, any performance should be so subtle as to go virtually unnoticed.
In “The Starfish & The Spider”, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom quote the ancient Chinese philospher Lao-tzu, “a leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him”. (p115)
We want to feel our leaders have our best interests at heart. There’s nothing more irritating than a leader who simply shouts about how great he/she is. Often, when those types of people are in management positions, they’re doing anything but ‘leading’.
What’s the true key to motivating and driving others? This is the heart of the ‘passion’ element I’m exploring. Leaders like Richard Sambrooke, Craig Newmark, Jason Fried, Gina Poole, Lloyd Davis and Andy Bell all seem to get it right.