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Serious about Leadership?

I’ve recently been enjoying the new Air New Zealand safety video, which draws on ‘Hobbit’ fever, with Sir Peter Jackson and some of the cast, while Air New Zealand get into the mood in film costume as Elves and Rangers. I enjoy the spirit of fun that it brings to the otherwise serious topic of aircraft safety.
In recent years Air New Zealand have gone to town with a whole range of videos that have been amusing and challenging, often at the same time, and all around the same topic of aircraft safety and indeed with exactly the same instructions. Air New Zealand have taken a serious topic and used it to help define their brand. Two messages for the price of one!

But some haven’t liked these safety videos as they are ‘not serious enough’. ‘Safety, flying and business are all serious topics and should not be treated irreverently’ they insist.

A little like the role of a manager. A serious role, with a lot of responsibility. But does that mean the manager has to have a permanently serious demeanor? The managers of my youth seemed to be, and like many I grew up in management thinking that was how I had to be; serious of visage, demeanor and word. And with that comes a tendency to take ourselves seriously.

But does it have to be this way? Or does the Air New Zealand approach show us that you can be serious about what you do, without always taking yourself seriously?

Leadership as a concept rests in a lexicon of diverse words that many of us grapple with and try to translate into our approach and style. Words like ‘charisma’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘gravitas’ battle for space in our leadership brands and of course our personal definition of these is then imprinted onto ourselves and way of leadership being. I’ve seen young leaders deflate when an ‘expert’ tells them that they need to ‘have charisma’ to be a true leader. That definition of charisma holds a nightmare of discomfort for the introverts in the audience, when the charismatic examples they are given are all flamboyant personas. And then ‘gravitas’ is the target for many experienced leaders, which for many carries a burden of seriousness that defeats their natural energy (or charisma?). ‘Wisdom’ only comes with age and experience doesn’t it? (and that begs the question ‘does it really?’).

My thought here is that these concepts are often layered over the top of who we are and based on managers of our past and definitions that we have learned or been given. And many of these definitions and examples seem to bring with them a layer of seriousness of demeanor, visage and word, as if that is the only way to convey them. As if the only way to be wise is to nod sagely and speak with serious tones, as if that act itself will bring forward wisdom.
Of course, I don’t think you can go to the other end of the spectrum and come to work with a jester’s hat on and prance about cracking jokes. But what I am questioning is whether we have to put on a mantle of seriousness and to take ourselves seriously to be a leader? It is well known that a bit of humour can change perceptions and open up your mind, so can a mantle of seriousness do the opposite? By not taking yourself too seriously do you also open up the opportunity for learning and self insight perhaps? By not trying too hard to be something or someone, do you allow yourself to be the leader you are meant to be? In my experience, many direct reports want ‘humanity’ and ‘humilty’ and ‘authenticity’ from their leaders as well as a pleasant work environment with some fun included. Not the same definitions by any means.

Nobody would say that Air New Zealand aren’t serious about their business, so maybe the award winning airline (a leader in their own right) has shown us that you can be serious about what you do, without taking yourself too seriously at the same time.

An idea worth taking seriously, perhaps?




  1. Thank-you for another great post.

    I totally agree with you that for the majority of people the idea of management and leadership is all to do with work and that in itself makes them think about the serious nature of most jobs, and maybe employment in general. At the same time if you ask those very same people about the best boss they ever had they will more often than not respond by describing someone who took into account their opinions and engaged them in the business. And yes, if that person had a sense of humour (almost everyone has after all) that will come out in the workplace too – managers and leaders are human too!

    Comment by Paul Slater — December 4, 2012 at 07:30

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