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When the “shock” effect backfires: Fortune’s list of the “World’s greatest leaders”

By now, you have likely read — or at least heard about — “Fortune” magazine’s new list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders.”

Let me cut to the chase; the reason the list is receiving so much discussion…and heat…is because singer Taylor Swift is ranked as the #6 leader in the world.

While there are other interesting choices — LeBron James and Jimmy Fallon come to mind — placing Swift above, for example, the CEO of General Motors or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States has been derided by almost every serious commentator on the subject of leadership.

Here are two points I’d suggest are important for all of us to remember in our roles as leaders:

  • 1) As I started saying many years ago, “ALL Business is Show Business.”  

(By the way…I am working on a complete revision and rewrite of that title right now! I’ll be releasing it as a new edition in the coming months — it’s never had more relevance than it does at this moment.)

As evidenced by the choices made by the staff at “Fortune,” leading a billion fans — as Swift does with her global fame and presence — isn’t viewed much differently than leading a billion citizens — as Prime Minister Modi does, ranked just one spot above the young singer on the list.

In another post, “Fortune” writes: “We set out to find singular leaders with vision who moved others to act as well, and who brought their followers with them on a shared quest.”

As I said in my book, show business succeeds when it creates a powerful emotional connection with the audience.  The deeper the connection, the more compelling the movie (for example) becomes.

How is leadership any different?  The more connected that you are with your followers — or customers — the more compelling that your quest becomes.

  • 2) “Shock” — simply for its own sake — does not create distinction.

You cannot convince me that “Fortune” didn’t know — and desire — the conversation and debate that this list has inspired.  I’d wager they bantered how high they should place Swift to be outrageous, without placing her where it was ridiculous. (And, I’d suggest they failed if that was their goal.)

  • Sorry…I can’t be persuaded that Taylor Swift is the most effective and successful female leader in the world.  When you place her above the aforementioned CEO of GM, the International President of Doctors Without Borders, and the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance — all you are revealing to your readers is that you’re trying to trick them, not illuminate them.

(Or, perhaps, that you don’t understand distinction in leadership…)

Have you ever seen a movie where something shocking — and totally gratuitous that doesn’t really need to be included — happens on the screen?  As a former film critic, I remember reviewing a movie that had that a horrific (and needless) scene early in the story.  I was stunned, as the director intended.  Yet, it was so manipulative, it disconnected me from the rest of what happened.  In other words, it had the opposite impact from what was intended.

I think that’s what has happened with this list.  “Fortune” wanted the list to be discussed — and, they succeeded; we’re doing it here!  However, the “shock” of Taylor Swift being named by a respected magazine as the top female leader in the world makes me disregard everything else on the list.

  • It also creates another aspect totally unintended: I wonder what else “Fortune” is writing with such little esteem for their readers, or so completely disconnected from reality?

What they’ve done for shock value to try to create distinction has instead damaged their credibility.

Just being shocking doesn’t make you better. Once you have our attention…you have to execute and connect with your audience. For example, Lady Gaga shocked us to get attention — but, as her performance on the Academy Awards and on her recent project with Tony Bennett proved, she has the chops to deliver once she obtained our mindshare.

What “Fortune” has done is provoke us…then, fail to deliver the goods.

That’s not distinctive…that’s damaging.

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Scott McKain is a business leader, bestselling author, and Hall of Fame professional speaker.
Scott's latest book, "The Collapse of Distinction: Stand Out and Move Up While Your Competition Fails" reached the #1 spot on Amazon.com list of Customer Service Bestsellers! He is the author of two #1 additional business bestsellers (Amazon.com & 800-CEO-READ): "What Customers REALLY Want" (currently available in trade paperback) and "ALL Business is Show Business."
He is the Co-founder and Principal of The Value Added Institute, a think-tank that examines the role of the customer experience in creating significant advances in the level of client loyalty, and has appeared on multiple occasions as a commentator and analyst on FOX News Channel. His platform presentations have run the gamut from the White House lawn with the President in the audience carried live on CNN and NBC's "Today" show...to a remote outpost near the Amazon...all 50 states, seven Canadian provinces...and from Singapore to Sweden...Mexico to Morocco.
An inductee into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame, he is also a member of "Speakers Roundtable" -- an elite, invitation-only group of twenty of the world's top business speakers.