The perils of leading from a pedestal

 © Jenn Shallvey

© Jenn Shallvey

Why would anyone choose to be in the public eye these days?  One moment you are on a pedestal, the next you are in the gutter. What amazes me though is that the person who is willing to be public is not the one choosing to be in either place. The public audience does this in a myriad of ways. Whether it’s a headline article in a newspaper or hysteria of tweets creating a trend, the public person is in for a ride.

I am not talking about people who get their '15 minutes of fame’ because of some random event or occurrence or people with giant egos chasing media attention. I am talking about people who sign up for work that will inevitably place them in a role that serves others. This can be entertainment, politics, religious groups, artists, volunteers, etc.

Let’s look at how people end up in the public eye and inadvertently on pedestals. (I write about how we talk negatively about others in a separate blog post).

It starts out innocently

A person is passionate to do something in the world like create change or make a difference.  Maybe they are an artist following their inner inspiration and creating works that speak to the masses. Perhaps it is a writer who just can’t get out of bed without putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Maybe it is a person who says to self “I think I will do something of service to help people” so signs up for a job that does this.  All cases are of people who are starting from a place of inner self expressing outwardly a calling or vocation.  All cases are of people saying what I do matters more than what people think.

Of course there is the inevitable of this work. To be successful and effective requires people who appreciate and are aligned with their work. In some way the individual seeking to make a difference in a public role does so implicitly knowing that they need people to support and help them do so. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Then comes the pedestal

So it is in this way that the public comes along. It starts out with a slow crescendo. A few fans. A few admirers. Then something tips the whole adoration obsession into gear. The person in the public role does or has something that others want.  It becomes about the offering or service and what it can do for these people. The person doing the serving becomes a public persona. We know less and less about the real person and more and more about what we want to see or what others think we want to see.

Over the years I followed particular authors or entertainers. I would attend a range of small intimate gatherings to large scale events.  Where there is a book on sale (usually part of the deal) I admit a few times lining up excitedly in the book signing line. I also admit to a few times getting my photo taken with someone I admired and yes sharing this with others.

So I know what it feels like to be swept up in the mass hysteria of a person. I know what it means to put a person on a pedestal and in a sense worship the ground they walk on.

An example of authors

Then many years ago I helped at an event and was the person ‘guarding’ the author at the book signing table.  It was like holding back a line shopaholics at a designer discount sale. All I could say was it was full on. I wondered about the motivation and energy of the whole experience. The cynical part of me wondered if this was encouraged to get more book sales. Then the psychology student in me wondered both what I was not seeing in me and what I was perceiving as missing in these people’s lives that they were so driven to get their fix from this person.

I also had the chance to ask another author what they got out of the whole book signing queue experience.  I was more than pleased to learn that the person genuinely wanted to connect with the audience that appreciated their writing. I get this. When so much of your connection is intangible having a real personal connection is fantastic. Yet I wonder how often this is done with respect from the adoring fan base.

What about leaders too?

So I take this example and look at the similar situation in leadership in business.  Long ago leadership models prolifically reinforced the hero and charismatic leadership model. I think in some ways this lingers where leaders misinterpret their role and title. In this context it’s all about the leader and their followers.

Over time this mindset shifted.  Leadership shifted to be more inclusive though easily open for misinterpretation. For example there are many told to ‘build their tribe’ or ‘create a following online’. Just look at the obsession of people collecting numbers of followers but not caring about who follows.  Again this bothers me. Why? Because in this instance we are putting ourselves out on the pedestal to start with. We are saying I am the leader you need to follow.  I guess it just goes against my values. I am not that kind of leader. I resonate more with the idea of serving others and inspiring others to stand with you not behind or beneath you.  

This does not mean I do not agree with hierarchy and structures with title. People in roles where there is expressed and agreed authority are the ones to lead, influence and guide others. These individuals take on responsibility at a whole different level.  For me the minute you are responsible for a group of people it is an honour and a privilege not a right nor entitlement. This is especially the case when you are voted or elected into a role.  

From the leader’s perspective it can sometimes look as if the leader accepted the pedestal position.  This may lead to a bit of ‘I’m in charge now so let me show you that I am’. It is more than making your mark or stamping your authority. It is about showing others what you do aligns with what you say and mean.  The leader though who chooses to rise above and stand on the pedestal creates distance and disconnect.  The ego and personality runs the show. Meaning and purpose step aside, or perhaps are eve cast aside.

It's the people at the base that create the frenzy

It is easy as well to see the naiveté of folks clamouring around the pedestal. We all can lay claim to this feeling. I am a long term fan of a particular Irish rock band. I can still remember the years of squishing my body against the stage and succumbing to the wave of pressure to get as close as possible. Like every person in the audience I too fantasised about being the one pulled up on the stage. Of course I was disappointed when not. So yes I know what it means to suspend all logic and just go crazy.

Maybe I have mellowed in my middle age. I am still in admiration of a variety of people. I follow them on Twitter. I read stories to see what they are up to. I admire their work.  Now though I see them more as fellow human beings doing their bit to make a difference. Instead of wanting to rush to a stage I now would rather sit down over a coffee or around a dinner table and discuss the impact this person or people are making in the world. (Ok, I admit maybe I would be just a little excited still to be in this situation).

Respect the person serving

Irrespective of whether a person is innocently placed on a pedestal or in the gutter I believe we need to respect for a person standing and serving.  The undercurrent of interpersonal exchange is respect.  You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like the other person. But you can respect them as another person.   Whether you are talking to a homeless person on the street or the lead singer of an Irish rock band both deserve respect.  This means showing in some way that you see them as human beings, real people and not a persona or image created and reinforced in your imagination.  You see the problem with putting someone either on a pedestal or in the gutter is that we forget their humanity.

So look no longer at leaders and public figures on pedestals or in gutters. See them sitting at a round table with you. See them along side of you. See them like you only with a different purpose and role to fulfill.  See them as willing to take charge and lead willingly and step forward on behalf of others.  If you can change your perspective then we may have a chance at seeing more leaders create positive change and make a difference.

And if you are this leader then make a choice now. Do you want to be on the pedestal? Do you want to be cast aside in the gutter? Probably definitely not the latter. But truly look inside of yourself and check whether you secretly want the attention, the adoration, the following. If you do then it's time to change before you can change elsewhere.