Fame vs leadership


When I was starting out in my career I’d hear other designers talk about their aspiration to work for certain businesses and, not knowing much about the industry itself, I would sit silently, in awe of people that seemed like superheroes.

The names of businesses and people I didn't know and would probably never meet, were thrown around like they were rock gods.

And growing up a Kiss fan, I knew a thing or two about Rock Gods! 

They would be spoken of in whispers of admiration. Adored from a distance.

They’d be held up as role models and in some cases I saw people model their own portfolios, CVs and even behaviour after the ‘leaders’ they idolised. These famous people were put on an almost unreachable pedestal.

Sitting in the gardens of my university we’d flick through industry magazines and we’d see these people being celebrated on the back page; creating an aura of celebrity around them.

Celebrated for winning awards, featured for attending functions and dressed so well. Oh so well.

We grew up thinking that these people, leaders of our industry would one day be our employers and that they in turn, would be the same type of leaders we'd have to grow into.

Or we'd better get off the bus.

Many years later I found myself sitting with a group of friends who had attended an event — they shared their insights of what was one of Australia’s many design industry events.

Their chatter focussed heavily on the keynote panel discussion of four industry leaders who spoke about their work and life. I hadn't attended and was listening keenly for the thoughts and insights they would share.

As their story unfolded I realised that my group of friends focussed their discussion and interest on one particular aspect of the event — the panel discussion — and specifically one particular question.

To them, their entire review of the day centred on the shock and disappointment they felt when they heard the answer to the following question from four industry leaders whom they admired:

"What do you do outside of work?"

The panel's answers were met with an auditorium filled with silence.

“We don’t have a life outside of work.” 

The answer was shallow.mand painted a bleak view of the future for the audience.

I could see my friends demeanour change during the course of this discussion as they focused on the topic of 'a life outside of work'. Moving from once admirers of the four industry leaders to now disappointed and critical of why they thought them good leaders in the first place.

My dear friends looked dejected and disappointed that the panel unanimously answered that they didn't have much of a life outside of their work. That, outside of their families, their life revolved around the businesses they ran and the work they did for their clients. Continually crafting, pitching and working.

My friends, and most of the auditorium it seemed, expected so much more from these four industry professionals.

It had me thinking about the type of leader I aspire towards, how we idolise leaders in our industry and by what attributes we classify good leaders.

See, back in my University days, and in the eyes of my friends who attended the event, we thought that fame was equal to leadership. And this simple conversation about an answer on a panel discussion where four industry professionals admitted to not having much of a life outside of work, lead me to ask the question:

Why are all the famous people called industry leaders anyway?” 

We mistakenly equated fame with leadership where people with good PR skills and a loud enough voice, found their way into our field of vision and true leaders didn't.

We mistakenly thought that someone with a large Instagram following was a leader in our industry.

We mistakenly thought that those people that were featured often by industry associations and publications were the leaders of our industry.

And we mistakenly thought that those leaders were well-rounded role models, when in fact when the veil was lifted, were simple disappointments.

What I realised was that fame isn't an equitable trait towards good leadership and that my younger and less experienced self, along with my friends more recently, were looking for the wrong things when we sought role models for our own careers.

Instead we were blinded by the names in lights, the audience numbers, the views, the likes and the number of followers — and yes, the eye-candy.

Instead we should've looked for and celebrated the good leaders in our industry. The ones that mattered.

Those leaders who:

  • teach and nurture young talent
  • continually learn new things themselves
  • support those otherwise not being supported
  • celebrate a diverse and inclusive industry
  • push our industry forward
  • contribute through many channels, not just the one we know them for
  • create ideas that are new and powerfully relevant to the future of who we all are as a society
  • bring new methods, practices and ideas to the table
  • challenge the status quo
  • can see the world through many lenses
  • have a life outside of work that is rich and nourishing
  • are good, humble, kind and ethical people

My friends attended an industry event and were a handful of people in an auditorium that felt the disappointment when they realised the four leaders of their industry didn't have a life outside of their day-to-day work. 

Their expectations were simple.

They wanted to see multi-dimensional people, amd instead we’re met with a singular dimension. A narrow field of view.

They wanted to discover that their heroes were normal people who were well-rounded, with a rich, healthy and fulfilling life outside of their work, bringing those things back to their profession.

Leaders who lead not through fame or the attribution of a large audience but rather, people who in themselves have a lot to learn and share that experience with us.

Leaders who cultivate a culture that has us punching the air as we leave work (early) and come back the next day (at a comfortable time).

I want to aspire to leaders who challenge me, push me to uncomfortable spaces that are safe and good for me. I want to aspire to leaders who don't just challenge the norms, but put up new ideals to replace the status quo. 

New, viable ideas that inspire not just me, but the people around me.

These are the leaders that I aspire to.

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