Thursday, June 23, 2011

Corporate role models: Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga

Who would have thought that Mother Teresa could have anything in common with Lady Gaga? Well, apparently both have become the latest icons of the leadership industry.


Writing in The Economist of June 4, "Schumpeter" (that's a pseudonym, by the way; the magazine is famous for, among other things, not carrying bylines) says there may be obvious differences between the singer and the founder of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata but these differences may matter less than their similarities:

Mother Teresa built her Missionaries of Charity from nothing into a global operation with fingers in over 100 countries. Lady Gaga is forecast to earn over $100m in 2011 and may soon outstrip supergroups like U2. Both women are also role models for corporate leaders [according to two recent publications, Mother Teresa, CEO, a book, and Lady Gaga: Born This Way?, a case study].

It is not just that, early in their careers, they traded in long, barely-pronounceable names for catchy short ones: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu became Mother Teresa, Stefani Germanotta became Lady Gaga. As the two publications argue, both women succeeded by developing simple, clear brands, which coincidentally both identified with outsiders. Mother Teresa ministered to the poor and the sick: people “shunned by everyone”. Lady Gaga describes herself as “a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers”. She assures her fans that it is OK to be odd. This is a comforting message not only for gays but also for most teenagers.

While it is not too much of a stretch to picture Mother Teresa being venerated as a leader, it will surely come as a surprise to learn that the young woman who gave raw meat a new life as a fashion statement has what the authors of the case study call "leadership projection" ("charisma" to you and me).

Lady Gaga has the “ability to build emotional commitment” in those she leads, says [one of the authors]. This ability is increasingly valuable in today’s business world, he believes. In The Fine Art of Success, a book he and his co-authors released last year, they examine it at length. They are now working with Egon Zehnder, an executive-recruitment firm, to figure out how to identify whether candidates for top corporate jobs have the ability to “project leadership” the way Lady Gaga does.

Those who appreciate good writing will love the way "Schumpeter" elaborates on the subject of charisma towards the end of this article. The columnist writes:

Management tracts with famous names in the titles are mostly guff. There is only so much a manager can learn from Genghis Khan — it is no longer practical to impale competitors on spikes.

And then we learn that some may doubt that "the secrets of Lady Gaga’s success, or Mother Teresa’s, can usefully be applied to, say, a company that makes ball-bearings".

Finally, we get examples of well-known names from the business world in connection with "charisma":

Yet charisma matters in business, and celebrities do tell us something about how it can be wielded. It is no longer enough for a corporate boss to be clever and good at giving orders. Modern knowledge workers may not put up with a hard, old-fashioned boss like Jack Welch, who used to run General Electric. Many respond better to one who communicates warmly: Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo sometimes writes to the parents of her managers to thank them for bringing up such fine children. Employees crave a sense of purpose, and the boss who can supply it will get the best out of them. Personal stories help: Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, whose business empires depend on their charisma, both play up their pasts as educational dropouts. Charisma is tough to learn, but it is not gaga to seek guidance in the stars.

This is clearly the work of someone who is intelligent, well-read, and who knows how to write. Someone who has read both publications referred to in the article and realised the significance of writing about it for a serious magazine, someone who knows the backgrounds of the world's top business leaders, who has analysed the qualities of these leaders and understood what works best for them and for their employees, someone who has then been able to put it all down in words in a style that is so interesting for readers.

Media students can learn a lot from reading the column in its entirety here: "The angel and the monster".
  • The Economist was first published in September 1843 to take part in "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress". More than 150 years later, the weekly magazine continues to engage, entertain, and enlighten readers like no other publication today. Pick up a copy today. Or read it online.
UPDATE (May 3, 2013): Dave Kerpen, an American CEO who is also a New York Times best-selling author and keynote speaker, and whose posts I have featured on the Reading Room, has just put up something interesting concerning five marketing lessons you can learn from Lady Gaga. Read Kerpen's post here.

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