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How to lead the ‘King of Pop’

Leadership guru looks back on Michel Jackson

by Tommy Weir

This past month, as the world mourned Michael Jackson’s untimely death, we remembered the great times he gave us over the years and the impact he had on us. Jacko, King of Pop, MJ — no matter what name you call him by, Michael will be a part of our memories and his music will continue to brighten our days when we hear it. We will cherish our memories of trying to moonwalk; of mimicking him by wearing a single glove or white socks; or of attempting to imitate the Thriller dance. Michael helped to shape generations all around the world.

As I watched the news and relived younger days through the music videos, or short-films as Michael called them, a question popped into my mind: “What can we learn about leadership from Michael Jackson?”

We can look through the lyrics of his songs to see if any give us leadership insights, which they do. But there is a much more important lesson we can learn from the King of Pop.

The first lesson can be found by asking, “How would you have gone about managing Michael Jackson?” How well do you think you would have done? To determine this, let’s consider the facts about Michael Jackson. As you read them try to not to reminisce, rather think about what you would have done and how you would have reacted if you were leading him.

The facts

• By the 1980s he had become infinitely more popular than his brotherly group, The Jackson 5.

• Michael holds the record for the most Grammys won in one year: he won eight in 1984.

• He popularized the “moonwalk” and created a dance movement.

• He has sold hundreds of million albums worldwide.

• He dated Brooke Shields and married Lisa Marie Presley.

• He was the first solo artist to generate four top ten hits on the Billboard charts off of one album, “Off the Wall.”

• He was the first artist to generate seven top 10 hits (US) on one album, “Thriller.”

• He was the only artist in history to generate five “#1 hits” (US) from one album, “Bad.”

• “Thriller” is the best-selling album of all time: in excess of 100 million copies sold worldwide.

• “Dangerous” is Michael’s second best-selling album of all time, with more than 30 million copies sold worldwide.

• “Bad” is Michael’s third most successful album, with 30 million copies sold worldwide.

To summarize, MJ was a musical prodigy who was born to be a solo success. At a young age, his singing and dancing talents were amazingly mature and he soon became the dominant figure of an entire industry, entertaining audiences for nearly his whole life. He was one of a kind, a real superstar.

The reactions

So, what would you do if you had to manage Michael Jackson? After working with over 700 chief executive officers in the Middle East (2,000 worldwide), let me share an insight into what most leaders would do.

Most leaders would
• Try to make him normal: Leaders habitually fail when it comes to making a superstar.

• Get jealous: Leaders do not like to share the stage nor do they do well with followers who are more popular than they are.

• Try to make him a team player: Leaders focus on group performance rather than maximizing solo success, which in the case of Michael was inevitable.

• Avoid controversy: Leaders do not like controversy or bizarre behavior, which makes him a consistent target for scandal-making and criticism. Jackson frequently drew controversy.

When it comes to managing a superstar like Michael Jackson, most leaders think it would be awesome, but in reality they would try to change the superstar, get jealous, not trust him, try to make him normal and ultimately try to get rid of or destroy him.

What leaders should do?

When someone has unmatched talent like Michael, a leader needs to discover how to use it for the whole organization to win. This means they cannot fall into the trap of jealousy. The leader has to accept the eccentric behavior, as this craziness is what allows the superstar to do things that others don’t even dream of (the source of their stardom). It also means that the leader will most likely be overshadowed and, if not, will need to step out of the spotlight. But in the end, there will be success.

By not managing a “Michael Jackson” type properly, a leader will lose record sales and maybe even screw up the biggest-selling album of all time, “Thriller.” Remember, people who are destined for greatness will make it with or without you.

So are you ready to manage Michael Jackson?

Tommy Weir is managing director of leadership solutions at Kenexa

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