Simon Cowell - Leadership Guru

Simon Cowell... His name conjures up visions of other great villains in history.  He's the Darth Vader of music shows, the Hannibal Lecter of aspiring singers.  And I love it. "Why, are you as twisted as he is?" you may ask. Maybe, but the reason I love watching him is not the pain he inflicts, but what I've seen him do as a leader in his field- and that's produce other leaders, winners, musical legends.

Yes, you only have to watch one of his highlight reels, with clips from both American Idol and The X Factor, to observe him at his evil best. With a few slices from his razor tongue, hopes and dreams are left wounded and lifeless on the tryout platform. But is that really all there is to Simon Cowell? Look deeper and see what you have to learn from him about bringing out the best in people.

Honesty Is Vital to Success - If nothing else, Simon is brutally honest, and not just about the horrible no-talent acts that try out. When she was still in the competition and down to the final 4 contestants, Simon said to now country superstar Carrie Underwood, "Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner." And then she did, and she has. People truly rise to levels they never believed they could reach when someone believes in them, pushes them and tells them what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

But sometimes people need to hear the hard truth as well. A lifeguard auditioned for American Idol, aspiring to one day be a pop star. After a very poor audition, Simon responded, "If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning." As leaders, we tend to care about those we lead, and sometimes it causes us to be less than honest for fear of hurting their feelings. In truth, we've not protected them from the truth, but rather delayed its impact on their life.  Leaders must be honest, whether it's promising or painful.

Criticism Comes With the Territory - No matter what else people may know or remember about either Idol or X Factor, when asked about Simon Cowell, most respond with words like "mean," "rude," or "critical" to describe him. He truly has built a great reputation among reality shows as a villain.  But it's not a role he has pursued. "The object of this competition is not to be mean to the losers but to find a winner," says Cowell. "The process makes you mean because you get frustrated."  As leaders, we're not always going to be understood. When changes have to be implemented, cuts made, or even budgets or staff cut, a leader can be criticized for their decisions or their perceived lack of leadership.

Leaders also understand that not every person is a perfect fit for their organization or team, and sometimes that means tough decisions need to be made. One year on American Idol, following a day of horrible tryouts, Simon Cowell said, "I think you have to judge everything based on your personal taste.  And if that means being critical, so be it. I hate political correctness. I absolutely loathe it." A leader will understand that not only does the truth hurt, but he or she has to pick what's uniquely best for their organization or team, no matter what others might think, say or do. It's essentially leading based on the perfect blend of courage and vision. And some people will criticize and hate you for it.  In the words of Simon, "so be it."

It Pays To Be The Best -  In both 2004 & 2010, Simon Cowell was voted as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Interestingly enough, TV Guide gave him their #10 spot in their 2013 list of the 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time! But more than that, he wrote the pop hit "Footprints in the Sand," recorded by Leona Lewis and he's sold over 300 million records.  The shows he has been a part of have produced stars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis, Jennifer Hudson, and he's signed internationally popular groups One Direction and Westlife. Because of his own great talent and track record, he wields great influence in the music industry. Simon Cowell gets to be Simon Cowell on shows like American Idol and The X Factor for one simple reason... he really is that good.

Leaders need to understand that the vast difference between positional leadership and influential leadership that has been earned. If you're wanting to have a greater impact in your company or industry, the formula is really quite simple. Get better at what you do. In the words of Seth Godin, become a "linchpin." It would be nice if you could start at the top, be the best and not have to work to get there. But that's not the real world, and it's not going to happen. Leaders understand that learning and performance are lifelong challenges that rise up to meet them in every moment  of every day.

So now that you've taken a second, maybe softer look at Simon Cowell, what other leadership traits do you see in his life and career?


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