Leadership is not Karaoke

“I am a student of leadership,” one MBA graduate student recently told me. “I have studied the great leaders and have chosen a mix of characteristics that will be my leadership style.”

If you were watching this conversation you would have seen that this student was quite serious in his statement of fact. He had decided that he needed the decision making ability of a Jack Welch, the calm coolness of Colin Powell, and the drive to master the marketplace of Jeff Bezos. While I wish this young man all the best in his leadership aspirations, all I could think of was how easy it would be if there was really a menu from which one could pick and chose. It made me think of a new term for this style of development. We’ll call it “Karaoke Leadership.”

Karaoke  I’ve actually known quite a few Karaoke Leaders in my time. They read about the late Coach John Wooden and then call their team together and try to incorporate his techniques of motivation. They read about GE and institute “workouts” and start devising plans to lay off the bottom 10% of performers. They study Meg Whitman and attempt to position themselves as charismatic speakers and communicators.

Unfortunately, even the best Karaoke Leader can only pull off the trick to a certain point. Only Coach John Wooden could have ever been Coach Wooden and only Meg Whitman can speak as Meg Whitman can speak. Don’t even get me STARTED about Jack Welch and GE! Most leaders who try to emulate Neutron Jack discover that (a) they aren’t at GE, (b) it’s not the 90s and (c) they aren’t Jack Welch. Which brings me to my suggestion of the day.

Rather than trying to be the best Colin Powell that you can muster, try being the best YOU that you can be. Each of these people, and many more, are undeniably great leaders. They have come into a specific situation at a specific time that allows them to use their specific strengths in a way that has had a great impact. Studying the great leaders can be tremendously effective…especially if you study the manner in which they made their decisions, overcame obstacles, and used their vision to inspire their followers.


To be a great leader yourself, however, requires that you look at these experiences, make your observations, and then apply them to your own situation and your own set of strengths and talents. For example, Welch had the courage and the foresight to see that massive downsizing was required in quick order, but had to be done while building a culture of success at GE. He mastered this in large part on the strength of his own personality but also in his strategic brilliance, in-depth planning and overall chutzpah. Applying the Welch model means applying your own courage and action orientation to getting things done that need to be done. Choosing to sing the Jack Welch song as if you are Jack Welch is guaranteed to create problems in the ability of people to see your own integrity and your own strengths.

Success through the biography of others is through application, not emulation. Look at the leaders you admire, whether they have multiple best-selling books or happen to run the public library. Look at HOW they do what they do and see if there are lessons that you can apply to your own set of strengths. The authentic leader doesn’t try to lead through following somebody else’s words or music but by writing her own song. Make yours an original and your followers may be more willing to sing along.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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