What Makes Leaders Popular? How Followers Create Imaginary Leaders, with the Power of Story and Selective Attention to Details


Cecil the Lion, when alive….

The Harvard Business Review this week reveals some fascinating — and somewhat disturbing — insights into the ways followers create and respond to leaders as if they were what they imagined them to be. It’s a powerful effect, one that can bolster a leader’s power and influence, at least until the imaginary bubble pops, and the true leader is revealed.

They look at leadership in a business setting to argue that “Employees create pictures of what leaders seem to be, based on the bosses’ accumulated emails, tweets, speeches, and videos, plus whatever tidbits are picked up here and there.” They not their “extensive research suggests there are four rules governing how people create and respond to the imaginary leaders that live in their minds.

Rule 1: Employees tend to judge a book by its cover. In saying this, we are not being disparaging toward employees; everyone does it. People are content to base their assessments of a leader’s ability and appeal on very little information. In fact, they prefer to have skimpy information, since it’s easier to digest.

Rule 2: Employees look for answers to a few specific questions: Does the leader care about me personally? Have high standards? Offer an appealing vision of the future? Seem human in a way I can relate to?

Rule 3: People prefer to get answers to these questions in the form of stories, which are then used to create the mental image. The image helps people decide whether to believe in and follow the leader. 

Rule 4: In assessing stories, people pay attention to those they perceive to be trustworthy, and disregard the rest. In assessing trustworthiness, people look for unexpected moments of candor and unbiased third-party accounts, communicated through unscripted and informal channels. Formal, planned interactions don’t provide these moments. As trustworthy stories are retold, they take on a life of their own, affecting people throughout the organization.”

HBR notes that this human tendency can be great if followers believe those in power are benevolent and caring, but once the worm turns, distrust isn’t far away. They recommend that leaders make an effort to really BE the caring, attentive, consistent leaders they want to be perceived as. Integrity and authenticity go hand in hand to make sure that follower perception matches leader reality.

They emphasize the positive value of reality-based inspiration and good leadership, and don’t write much about the dangers of false advertising. “Rest assured that if you keep doing the right things, people will eventually notice and spread positive stories about you. And those stories will form themselves into an army of mental images that will mobilize people to achieve your goals.

But it doesn’t take much to understand the importance of being the leader you seem to be. If your trustworthiness and vision are all a smokescreen for greed or self interest, then a leader can’t help but fall from heroic (imaginary) grace, and be perceived as a fake and a villain. After all, followers are only human — and so are leaders. For effective leadership, our personal and professional myths need to have roots in real world action. That’s no lie.


  1. […] In the Times interview, Trump could not call up enough facts to make meaning out of his answer, and depended on an aide to remind him of the most basic information. Those with the inclination to make excuses — he’s tired, he’s not used to the complexity of government, it’s hard to remember everything (inexperienced?), at least he brought along aides who could help him — might not be so understanding if they perceived the stakes were higher, say if the speaker were their boss, or if they disagreed with the speaker’s perceived positions in the first place.  (Our human tendency is to skim over evidence that shows what we believe isn’t true, and look fo…) […]


  2. […] Second, “celebrity” leadership creates imaginary leaders in our minds. This process can be used to persuade people we are bigger and better than we are, or our followers might use it to persuade themselves that we are perfect or ideal. If you, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have become an icon rather than a person, your complexities will not be welcome in a crisis. I cannot say what is really happening in Myanmar, and I tend to believe the refugees and the UN. Whatever is happening, though, it is a horrific example of how a leader who rose to power because of her ability to stand up to oppression became a saint, and now she is seen with feet of (bloody) clay. In such situations, we lose faith with righteous disappointment, and may be blind to complexities that could become solutions. […]


  3. […] isn’t just an attempt to characterize his testimony as false. It’s also part of our current resistance in America to authentic leadership. Authentic leadership can’t only be judged as a consistent personal performance. It almost […]


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