Chasing Your Shadow: Leadership Brand and Derailment

Leadership brand and derailmentI recently listened to a talk given by Greg Barnett, one of Hogan’s veteran consultants and our Director of Product Development, about the importance of defining a strong leadership brand. The concept of an individual leadership brand departs from our conventional understanding of branding from an organizational standpoint. For example, consider the brand that Apple computers has created; the exemplars of innovation, elegant simplicity, and sleek, modern, technology. Now consider the individual leadership brand that Steve Jobs created – in many ways, his personality embodies many of the same qualities of Apple’s brand – Jobs is hailed as an innovative, creative genius who changed the world with his brilliance and innovation. Even his physical image aligned with Apple’s brand – sleek, simple, and timeless with a modern slant.

So, what does a strong leadership brand get you? To cite Barnett, developing a strong leadership brand can earn friends, fans, and followers – and not just the kind you get on Facebook or Twitter. It defines your identity and distinctiveness, communicates what value you bring to the table, and provides focus and direction to guide leadership efforts. It also insulates you from your shortcomings and mistakes.

A strong, consistent brand creates a kind of umbrella, so-to-speak, that defines you as a leader and makes your day-to-day actions (and blunders) less relevant. For example, consider the legacy left behind by Bill Clinton; despite his well-publicized lapses in judgment and abuse of political power, he remains a beloved American president who is remembered for leading our nation through one of the most prosperous decades in U.S. History. Although President Clinton withstood some harsh criticism and mockery, his overall image, strong leadership brand, and arguably his charm, helped cushion these blows and preserve his overall reputation and contributions in the hearts, minds, and history books of the American people. By contrast, Howard Dean’s brand image was not strong enough to save him from his “I have a scream…” speech, which sealed his fate forever as a volatile lunatic unfit for presidential office.

However, no matter how magnetic, impactful, or authentic the leadership brand, all human beings have a dark side – a kind of shadow that follows you around, lurking in the peripheral, with the potential to emerge in times of stress, pressure, novelty, or boredom. This is what Hogan refers to as leadership derailment, wherein our personality characteristics betray us, degrade our success, and generally send us on a fast train to nowhere. Our shadow is particularly dangerous because it tends to lie beyond the reach of our awareness, but is highly apparent to those around us.

In the wake of Jobs’ premature passing, his strong leadership brand permits his fans and followers to remember him fondly for his brilliant contributions to the world, his insistence on quality, and the legacy he leaves behind him at Apple. Nobody is highlighting his failures, setbacks, or well-known dark side. Well, almost nobody…

In a scathing post-mortem commentary titled What Everyone is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs, Gawker’s Ryan Tate points out some elements of Steve Jobs’ shadow. Some have described him as a ruthless tyrant who inspired fear among his ranks with his hostility, unpredictable temperament, humiliation tactics, and harsh censorship practices. Yet, in the aftermath of Jobs’ death, he is still heralded as a prodigy, a strategic genius, and a gifted innovator who changed the technological landscape forever. Only history will be able to tell us which version of Jobs lives in the collective public memory – the genius, or his shadow? Was his brand strong enough to fend off the smudge that his shadow left on an otherwise pristine career?

In listening to Greg’s talk, he posed some powerful questions that are still rattling around persistently in my own head many days later: What defines your leadership brand? What do you stand for? What do people say about you when you’re not around?

People have a difficult time answering these questions honestly because human beings are masters of self-deception. Our clever minds and defensive egos do a phenomenal job of protecting us from the truth, as do the people around us who shield us from the painful reality that we are not perfect. We receive feedback from our peers and loved ones in the form of sugar-coated rubber bullets that contain a shred of truth, but do little to help us become truly self-aware.

It is worth reflecting on the unintended consequences that your shadow can have on your brand reputation and ultimate success. If you get to know your shadow, you arm yourself with the self-awareness needed to manage your dark side, prevent derailment, and create a true leadership brand that is authentic, high-quality, and differentiates you from others.