Leadership Lessons from American Idol

By Jim Whitt

If you’ve been watching American Idol you got to see a train wreck last week. In my opinion – and remember, it’s just my opinion – the most talented singer of all the contestants, Pia Toscano, was eliminated by virtue of receiving the fewest votes of the remaining nine contestants. The audience was shocked, the other contestants were shocked and the judges were shocked. Interscope Records signed Pia to a recording contract within 24 hours of her departure from the show.

The train wreck actually started before Pia got the boot, when Iggy Pop performed on the show. It really wasn’t a performance, it was more like a freak show. He skipped, gyrated and writhed around the stage wearing nothing but a pair of jeans mouthing the words to a song entitled Real Wild Child. Iggy was wild but at 63 years of age he’s hardly a child. He looked more like Pop Iggy than Iggy Pop.

American Idol has always been promoted as a singing competition. But what signal is sent when they put someone like Iggy Pop on stage? This is what American Idol is all about – this is what you should aspire to be if you are a contestant. It may be a subliminal message but it is a powerful message.

OK, so what’s all this got to do with leadership? Let’s say an organization promotes a certain kind of culture. In keeping with the American Idol theme let’s say it’s a singing culture. The employees all buy in and really start singing. Then the leadership goes out and hires an Iggy and puts him in a high profile position. What signal does this send? All this singing culture stuff is just talk. The singing stops. Worse yet employees start acting like Iggy. Hey, if that’s what it takes to get ahead around here I can be a real wild child.

People might listen to what you say but they will definitely watch what you do. And what you do always wins out over what you say. If you tolerate a certain type of behavior you are actually rewarding that type of behavior. And behavior rewarded is behavior repeated.

That’s what you can learn about leadership from American Idol. And that’s what American Idol needs to learn about leadership.

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