If in the widest sense, leadership is something to do with others choosing to follow you, then it seems self-evident to me that one quality which is almost a pre-requisite for leaders is authenticity – you have to stand for something, and your standing has to be ‘real’, not an act. So it is quite ironic that I recently observed some wonderful authenticity, whilst watching ‘an act’, and indeed a highly developed act.
Last night, I went to a Lady Gaga concert (second time I have seen her – a source of mild amusement to my middle-aged male friends). If you’re not familiar, let me give you a quick summary:
- American female solo ‘pop’ star.
- Mad as a fruitcake – think Kylie on steroids (if you don’t know who Kylie is either, this may be the wrong article for you – sorry!).
- Genuine musical talent – pianist and amazing vocal range.
- A truly dedicated fan base – predominantly young-ish women and gay men.
Now the last item kind of goes hand in hand with being a pop star (the first bit anyway), but having observed her in action twice now, the adulation from her core fans runs deeper than normal – loving the music, wanting the star’s life, or to sleep with or marry them. Lady Gaga stands for something: it’s ok to be yourself, to be different, to not run with the gang. And for all the fruitcake stuff, crazy outfits and general madness, there’s lots of evidence that she hasn’t forgotten where she came from; the fans genuinely relate to her and she gives them hope and belief.
At the first concert a couple of years ago, the ‘dare to be different’ theme came over mainly through some of the words she said; it was really engaging; I could absolutely see how empowering it would feel to many of the younger crowd in the audience. This time she did even better. Her fans tend to throw things to her – clothes to put on (which she sometimes does if something catches her eye), gifts, letters etc. She picked up one of the letters and read it out (I am going to choose to believe that this was not staged; if it was, the acting was world-class and bear in mind she has some previous form in inviting up random members of the audience). The letter was from a gay couple who has been inspired to come out by her. After reading the letter, she actually went back and found the writers and got them on stage with her for her next song. Now this might not sound like the most amazing example of leadership you’ve ever seen which should immediately be a case study in the Harvard Business Review alongside Churchill and Mandela. But trust me, in the flesh, the personal engagement and reaction from both the couple and the crowd was powerful stuff, particularly given the quite stirring content of the letter.
I am sure the cynics amongst will think you recognise some clever show(wo)manship here, but bear in mind that I’m a mildly cynical forty-something straight bloke with opinions on lots of things, definitely including leadership. However I still recognised that in her genuine emotional engagement with her followers, and the giving something of her herself, there are lessons for all who desire or claim to lead.