As soon as enough people give you enough compliments and you’re wielding more power than you’ve ever had in your life, it’s not that you become…arrogant…or become rude to people, but you get a false sense of your own importance and what you’ve accomplished. You actually think you’ve altered the course of history. Leonard0 DiCaprio
Characterizing the leader as celebrity may sound like an odd take, but it fits. It was part of Drucker’s problem with charismatic leadership. All the time and in any public setting (physical, virtual or broadcasted), we are creating “celebrity”. It is a form of leadership that emerges from visibility and branding. A name becomes increasingly recognizable and a set of meanings is attached to it. There can then be a subtle shift, as a normal human being becomes a brand. Meaning becomes larger or different for the person involved. A famous author exercises leadership through ideas, a famous actress leverages great facial bone structure or a famous speaker communicates charismatically with a deep voice and theatrical gestures. In the broadest sense of leadership each leads and each faces the challenge of celebrity, even if only on a small scale.
Our beliefs and resulting behaviors are essential to who we are. Celebrity can alter circumstances or individuals outside our control, and create situations opposed to our personal wishes and beyond our maturity; this generates leadership actions with unintended consequences. Uncritical followers, attracted by the brand, ignore a host of warning signs.
A foundational indicator of toxic celebrity is a lack of accountability. If you watch the entertainment news of the day – surely a profitable exercise! – you may be familiar with the concept of “entourage”. It may not be a shock that these are people kept around for their very ability to say “yes” – to the leader’s every request (very little “vigorous fellowship” here). Leaders enthralled with celebrity are literally “in thrall” to the unholy freedom to do exactly whatever feels good at the moment. This is a dark side of celebrity according to DiCaprio. At the same time, in view of their special status, celebrities are placed under little pressure or responsibility for results. Those followers who are disappointed or hurt are also usually the ones who eventually bring down the celebrity once they discover their feet of clay.
Technology can amplify or alter meaning in surprising ways. At the most basic level a set of large speakers is necessary for a rock band to become celebrities. (There may be a few singers out there still functioning as celebrities without using electricity in some way, but we are not aware of them.) Television and the internet use technology to amplify meaning and propel individuals into recognition and expanding brands. Even schlolarly video conferencing appears to have this effect. Or, consider the impact of blogging …
The phenomenon is not limited to Hollywood stars. Some leaders consciously leverage a personal brand to be more effective, giving little thought to the moral or ethical implications of their burgeoning celebrity. Many can be found eventually swinging in the wind, riding the wave of their fame in the salacious tabloid press at the logical end of this quest. These leaders represent a fair and balanced cross section of politicians, corporate executives and preachers.
Being both naked and aware of it may not be such a bad thing if you want to be emperor.
[stay tuned for the sequel coming soon – A circle of loving detractors]
 Oregonian, 11-7-2004.