‘Lightning Rod’ Leadership– Ddoes It Detract From the Brand?

The announcement that our mayor here in Chicago, Richard M. Daley, had decided to not seek re-election to the job he’s held for six terms made me wonder about the relationship between a strong leader of any organization and the branding that organization is trying to project.

By this, I don’t mean CEOs or company leaders whose actions steer a brand in the marketplace — I mean “lightning rod” leaders who draw so much attention and interest, by virtue of their personalities, actions or circumstances, that they become tantamount to “brands” themselves.

Even in the case of a huge, diverse and energetic city like Chicago, a town that has plenty of reasons to be in the headlines and in the awareness of people nationwide and worldwide, whether related to sports, business, culture, or giant public eyeballs that, frankly, freak me out whenever I see them, there’s an undeniable association between the town and the family that’s run it for the better part of the last half-century. Mr. Daley himself epitomized a certain lumpen public image of Chicago and Chicagoans, with his Bridgeport Irish comportment and penchant for inventive verbal conjugations. A kinder, gentler version of his father, and one for whom I doubt any folk songs will be written.


Two obvious examples of business leaders who drew this kind of focus are Tony Hayward and Steve Jobs, of course. The former may not have sought the limelight, but he got it, and was happy enough to speak his piece while he held it — to his ultimate chagrin, and to the detriment of his company. Steve Jobs may not crave the attention he gets from the media and dedicated followers of Apple, but he certainly doesn’t dodge it, and slyly manipulates his image as perfectionist guru to further the “cult of Apple.”

But is the success of Apple too closely allied to Steve Jobs’ image, and the gift he has for riveting attention — and controversy? The question often arises, in Silicon Valley and beyond, about who will follow Jobs as leader. Is there anyone else with a charisma, a “reality distortion field”, that’s as potent? Jobs inspires and evangelizes everyone around him, and that’s part of the Apple story, a strong point of differentiation that puts an authentic face on the brand. The quid quo pro is that powerful leaders arouse polarizing reactions, as seen during “Antennagate,” for example.

What happens when he leaves? Should a brand safeguard itself against a leader becoming too embraced, too much of a figurehead? Or should it always leverage the potential of a charismatic leader? From Mary Kay Ash Colonel Harland Sanders to Lee Iacocca to Dave Thomas, companies have relied on the personalities of their leaders — and unless there’s a strong “brand succession plan” in place, they can suffer when that person is missing. Just ask Wendy’s.

Maybe one tactic is to leverage that polarization for all it’s worth. During Elvis Presley’s 1950s heyday, as he was managed by Colonel Tom Parker toward becoming the kind of celebrity brand that had never been seen before, people who despised the singer could buy “I Hate Elvis” buttons to parade their disdain.

Who came up with the buttons, and shrewdly made a few bucks off the haters? That would have been none other than Colonel Tom Parker.

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