As “American Idol” is poised to name its next idol, it’s a good time to talk about what a reality television show that turns ordinary people into superstars can teach us about leadership.
Like Walt Disney, who was fired by a newspaper editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas,” or Albert Einstein, who was once labeled “mentally slow,” strong-willed contestants are often people who refuse to let what others say about them define their reality.
How many times have you been told you couldn’t do something? That you weren’t qualified or there was too much competition? I was told I would never become a television reporter because at a younger age I had a lisp. I went on to spend 20 years in television, finishing that career as a reporter at WPVI-TV here in Philadelphia. In later years, I was told I could never succeed as a communications coach. Sixteen years later, we have clients across the globe. Was it talent? I’d like to hope that played a part. But like a contestant, I believed in myself.
Strong stars ooze the three P’s of leadership: Purpose, Passion and Perseverance. Like great leaders who know people won’t always agree with their point of view, these entertainers understand that the only way to connect with an audience is to be truly connected to what you are saying or doing.
No one understood this better than my childhood friend Jeffrey Zaslow. He wrote the Ann Landers advice column for years, went on to become a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the best-selling author of several books. At 53, he was killed in a car accident near his home in Michigan last winter. When people describe Jeffrey, they always say his ability to draw people out and learn as much as he could about them made both him and his stories so compelling. Jeffrey lived the three P’s, but he also had an H. He made everyone around him feel important. He had heart.
This is a problem that haunts the workplace. A BNET survey asked more than 1,500 senior managers and executives around the country what they really think of the top boss. When given a list of a dozen words to describe their CEO, only one in five employees picked “caring” or “warm,” suggesting that when it comes to people skills big bosses aren’t getting great marks.
When I wrote my book, I conducted an unofficial survey of people I knew to find out what they value in a boss. No one mentioned smarts, vision or power. Instead, the two words that repeatedly showed up were communication and trust. Responders said they felt most inspired and empowered when bosses clearly and frequently communicated what they wanted and respected the opinions of employees.
Who do you want to be? Can you bring the same P’s and H that you might bring to a hobby or family outing to your job?
I once worked with a man named Patrick who struggled to hold people’s attention at meetings. Yet, outside of work he was magnetic, personable and hilarious. Nothing I suggested seemed to help until he told me he was a diehard Yankees fan. His entire demeanor changed when he spoke about his team. So, I assigned him homework. Patrick had to convert me, a Phillies fan, to his New York way of thinking. Fat chance!
The next morning, someone I hardly recognized showed up in full Yankee garb, carrying a baseball bat and glove with a big Yankee logo painted on his face. He delivered one of the most informative yet engaging presentations I can remember.
Without realizing it, Patrick did more than talk Yankees. He lashed out at every objection so I knew my opinion was heard. He brought me into his story with big gestures and movements. His enthusiasm was contagious.
You may be surprised to learn about a group of musicians a record company once turned down. Rejecting the Beatles, they said: “We don’t like their sound. Guitar groups are on their way out.”
I for one am thankful the three P’s and an H won out.