Leadership Lessons from American Idol

Other than the fact that they should probably stick to singing only in the shower, is there anything business owners and managers can learn from watching “American Idol”?

Amercian Idol LogoTom Fox, director of the U.S.-based Center for Government Leadership, writes a regular column on leadership for the Washington Post. He recently identified four lessons that business leaders can learn from the heart-to-heart talks that the three judges – Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler – have with each singer about their performance.

“Now that the Top 24 finalists have been selected, the judges must have honest, direct and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about whether contestants are likely to achieve their hopes and dreams,” says Fox. He notes these are just the type of conversations many leaders try to avoid.

Here are Fox’s four tips, and one of my own:

  • “Make your motivations clear. Randy typically begins his feedback with a disarming remark: ‘You know I like you, right, dawg?’” Informal as it is, this opening tactic signals that the speaker sincerely wants to help improve the singer’s performance. As a leader, says Fox, “you need to state your intent clearly with employees before diving into difficult conversations.”
  • “Focus on facts first, not feelings. Even though I get tired of Randy telling the singers that they’re ‘too pitchy’,” says Fox, “this feedback is based on fact and not on their sense of style or personality.” Starting a difficult conversation with “just the facts” helps establish common understanding of the problems to be solved.
  • Bring tissues. “There’s a lot of crying on ‘American Idol.’ We’re all human, and even the most professional among us can become emotional when confronted by a situation that we don’t really want to discuss or when told something that we don’t want to hear.” Fox says you must prepare for employees’ emotional responses – and your own. If necessary, take a break – but resume the conversation as soon as possible.
  • Close with clarity. Finish each conversation with a clear set of next steps. Fox says the “Idol” judges often fail in this regard. Instead of just finishing the conversation with “Do better next time,” Fox says “you need to delineate your expectations and a time frame for accomplishing a set of goals. Otherwise, you run the risk of having the same conversation again in the future.”

I would add one more lesson that occurred to me while watching the show. What distinguishes “Idol” from any other talent contest in America? Only its own sense of self-importance. It is “American Idol” because it says it is. The producers hire brand-name judges to convey star quality, and conduct auditions in just enough cities to sustain their “national” brand. Such self-aggrandizement is foreign to most Canadians – but it demonstrates the confidence that is often required for a brand to be heard in the crowded marketplace.

So sing out with confidence, like all the hopeful superstars on “American Idol.” If you don’t promote yourself with purpose and ambition, who will?