Monday, 28 September 2009

X Factor: 3 Leadership lessons

For those who don't know, X Factor is a UK based (but syndicated in many other countries including the USA) reality TV show where members of the public audition to take part in a live pop singing show. It is a very compelling programme which dominates the weekend schedules for several weeks each year. I will come clean and admit that I am fan - mostly because I am captivated by the journeys that the various contestants go through. See

But watching the programmes over the weekend - I got to thinking - what does this show say about leadership? (OK - it is mostly about entertainment - and leadership is probably not high on its agenda but...)

Firstly I recall a video by Tom Peters from many years ago - where he was talking to a large group of managers in the Albert Hall (I think). To paraphrase - he said "if you don't like people - don't become a manager! You have to really delight in seeing people grow and develop to be a good leader".

I think this is partly what makes Simon Cowell a good leader. Yes, of course, the cynic in me says that all is ever in his mind is a stream of pound notes and dollar bills. However, looking carefully at him when people perform (or don't perform) - I see a gleeful twinkle when anyone excels. Moreover, he smiles even more, when people appear to have been on a journey of development and discovery. I think this is what marks him out as a good leader. (For the record I would put Cheryl in the same category - but I am not sure about Louis and Danii...)

So leadership lesson one is: delight in reflection, growth and development and show it - your followers will aim for even higher things as a result

What Simon is also excellent at - is giving feedback. Yes, he plays to the crowd sometimes and can be quite cutting. If he is ever harsh (and some might say cruel) - he does it with a clear purpose designed to either get the person to give up on hoping to become a celebrated singer or to get the person to improve. His criticisms are never just extraneous. He is also honest and direct.

Leadership lesson two: give feedback purposefully and helpfully - say what you believe and believe what you say. Of course in a work context, giving developmental feedback needs to be more than the one liner from a reality TV show - but the principles are not that dissimilar.

One of the themes that Simon and other judges often return to is self belief. Comments such as 'she is really beginning to believe in herself now' pepper the show. I think one of the most important attributes of a good leader is the ability that they have to inspire true and deep self confidence in the people that they lead. I suspect that singing coaches, also know this - and whilst there are undoubtedly techniques and tricks to learn - I am guessing that the most important aspect of a good singer is confidence. Leaders and coaches need to act on this.

Leadership lesson three: Do all that you can to build confidence among the people you lead - indeed, look to create the leaders of the future.

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