Popular business and management reading would have you believe that anyone can be a leader – that all it takes is a little spark from the inside. Indeed, that is inspiring. But it is simply not true.
The truth is that you need an entire audience of people to AGREE that you are a leader for the role of “leader” to work, and for the identity of actually being a leader to work its way into your self-concept.
The Leadership Stage
Ever heard of Erving Goffman? Probably not. He is a famous sociologist. But you probably have heard the expression from Shakespeare, “all the world’s a stage.” Goffman picks up on this idea in his seminal book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. And I think Goffman’s work gives us meaningful insight on how to properly act as a leader.
Goffman argues that humans present themselves to other humans in very certain, specific ways because they want to be seen and understood in very certain, specific ways. We are actors, so to speak, on a metaphorical stage. Everyone around us is an audience member. For example, some of us might color ourselves with tattoos, or wear certain brands of clothing, or drive certain types of cars, or act either with poise or high levels of abandon, and we do this for very specific reasons. We want to been seen, by others, in a very certain, specific light.
Here the AUDIENCE is key. We closely monitor the response of this audience. We look for affirming nods, smiles, warm and friendly behavior, kind words, admiration, and other forms of praise or cheer. Online we might look for likes, mentions, comments, shares, retweets, hearts, etc. to indicate that we are a success.
Metaphorically speaking, we are constantly looking for applause from the crowd.
Positive response is affirming and it keeps us happy with our self-concept.
Negative response, on the other hand, is alarming, disconcerting, and stressful. It can impact our self-esteem and shake us to our core. Negative response can cause us to permanently change our thinking about ourselves and it can thus change our behavior.
Like many people, you might have experienced negative feedback when you first tried to act as a leader. Maybe people did not listen to you or follow your instructions. Or maybe people actively sabotaged your ideas or laughed them off. Maybe you didn’t even get hired to try out your leadership script.
This sort of audience behavior has a significant impact on whether people continue trying to lead and whether they are successful in sustaining a leadership role. Most people simply walk off stage when faced with a tough crowd. It might be years before they try again.
Are you on stage playing a leadership role? How has your audience reaction been? And how has it impacted you? Has it changed your behavior and your perception of your ability? And how have you navigated negative feedback?
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Dr. Ganem is founder and director of Lion Leadership, a consulting organization and that helps private and non-profit companies with leadership and managerial development, strategic planning, and organizational effectiveness. She is primary writer for the ROAR blog at www.ImTheLion.com where readers gain perspective on themselves, their organizations, and how to reach their potential at work.