How to Lead Like #Ellen Degeneris: More than Entertainment — #Authentic Presence, not just #Leadership Rituals

Leadership Freak posted a recent blog about Ellen DeGeneres’ leadership style, and the value of the environment she creates in her talk show. He has some interesting observations about her influence and style, focusing mainly on her presentational fun-ness and her personal focus on happiness as a comedian. He encourages us to learn from comedians, because they influence others and leadership is influence. Here’s his vision of her:
Graphic from Leadership Freak

Graphic from Leadership Freak

What’s most interesting about his analysis is that he boils it all down to positive self-presentation and connection — a true gift of DeGeneres’ personal and comedic style, to be sure — but doesn’t give any of the more fascinating cultural context of her career as an openly lesbian comic who became a TV and media star and became part of the growing movement of out and proud performers who have led the transformation of media and culture by claiming an authentic space for themselves in the public eye.

Here’s his pivotal argument:

Degeneres dances down the aisles every show, creating a fun ritual of connection, predictable and therefore pleasurable. Such leadership rituals are good because:

  1. “People feel like they belong when they know what’s coming next.
  2. Predictability relieves anxiety.
  3. Established patterns of behavior free minds to concentrate elsewhere.
  4. Leaders who follow
  5. Predictable patterns make you feel trustworthy.”

All well and good, true in its own way. In fact, her fun-ness and connected girl-next-door delight has always been a signature, and she has used it well. And it’s great to have a signature leadership ritual that offers predictable connection, vary it meaningfully, and make it work with our leadership styles.

1997 Appearance on Time Magazine

1997 Appearance on Time Magazine

But I can’t resiste a huge “huh?” reading this assessment of niceness and connection as leadership, especially in DeGeneres’ case. Because she’s been part of a world-changing movement, and been a strong leader in political realms as well, including animal rights, vegan living and  GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender) visibility. (That’s how she wants to make the world happier — a lot more bite when you think of her leadership that way, right!?)

She has her own record company, has hosted (with critical playfulness) the Emmy Awards and the Academy Awards, and has a great deal of power, far beyond her cheery leadership ritual or her comedy persona of goofy niceness.

It’s strange how we see leaders like her, sometimes, totally out of context of their lives and influence. Being fun, supporting happiness and dancing — seen through the lens of her more political identity, these qualities could be seen as activism and playful transgression, rather than the innocuous vision of the blog I quoted. (Although they are also just good fun — one of her more endearing qualities, sweetening the potential challenge of her identity to homophobic viewers.)

Degeneres with wife Portia Rossi in 2012

Degeneres with wife Portia Rossi in 2012

And even now, when acceptance of GLBT people as citizens and colleagues and family members and sports figures and preachers and teachers and just plain folk who live next door is going pretty well in some states, it’s pretty amazing that she’s one of the most successful talk show hosts around. I mean, look at her. She’s the new Dinah Shore! But kind of butch, no matter how you airbrush her.

I would argue that Degeneres is a great leader, not because she’s a great comic and entertainer, but because she stands for so much more than entertainment. Yes, let’s learn from comedians like her, but let’s not diminish their ability to lead by saying they’re successful because they create fun rituals and have a positive presence. That’s a tactic for entertaining, and although we communicate better when know how to entertain and encourage folks, that in itself is not leadership.

Degeneres is a leader because she has created a public presence that has given her power — built authentically on who she is, built persuasively on her skill as an actor/comedian, and built steadily with strategic, lucky persistence in her professional aspirations. That’s what we can learn about leadership from this particular comedian.

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