Antihero Leadership and Brand Messaging

We’re fascinated by  leaders. The most demanding CEOs command the most attention. They’re visionaries. They’re mavericks. They’re tough guys.

More than anything, they are characters, like antiheroes that are becoming increasingly popular on TV and in movies. Many NFL coaches also fit this model. They can get away with being rude. They can lose their temper, with seemingly no repercussions. In fact, their intensity seems to result in astonishing success.

However, for every Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, there’s a Tim Armstrong. This is a perfect example of how very, very wrong antihero leadership can go. This is what happens when reality meets the larger-than-life leader. The problem here is that Tim’s actions (firing a random employee in the middle of a meeting) were not consistent with AOL’s brand messaging. In a way, his actions seemed idealistic. He wanted to be as goal-oriented and committed to excellence as other industry leaders. However, AOL isn’t there yet, so when this story leaked, it was met with criticism and negative attitudes.

While profiles of leaders like Bezos contain a great deal of truth, they also contain a great deal of spin. Authors have a clear incentive to create a dramatic narrative, and anti-hero leaders are just that. Companies also have an incentive to “celebritize” their leaders, positioning them as compelling characters in their brand’s story. In other words, even Steve Jobs wasn’t Steve Jobs. Top leaders are often consciously and unconsciously mythologized. Most leaders can easily identify the fact that there is a fictional component to every tall tale about a superstar CEO.

You may or may not identify with these strong, borderline autocratic examples of leadership. Whatever your leadership style is, it should be able to coexist with your brand messaging. However, can antihero leadership work for a small business? Many owners seem to think that it can’t, and for good reason. Firing someone at random in a meeting (like Tim Armstrong) can kill morale. For many businesses, the hiring process for a key employee is a significant burden.

Using Jobs as an (albeit overdone) example that everyone knows, Apple (and Jobs himself) spun Jobs in a way that portrayed him as the embodiment of Apple’s core values of design and perfectionism. As the founder, Jobs shared those core values; however, they took it to a mythological level that was certainly fictionalized in some ways. Similarly, Bezos is price-slashing and consumer-oriented, much like Amazon itself. However, this gets taken to the extreme.

Obviously, small businesses are even more likely to have owners and CEOs that reflect their core values. As a business owner, your business likely reflects your personal values in many ways. However, it never hurts to ensure that you stay on message. Every client e-mail, every phone call, every blog post has to reflect your company values.

Driving, eating a sandwich, and taking a customer call simultaneously does not mesh well with a detail-oriented, formal set of values. Similarly, being stiff and terse even in casual emails screams “off brand!” for a more relaxed firm. Oftentimes, we choose values that are ideals, which means we constantly need to strive and readjust to keep hitting those key points.

Antihero leadership only works in the most popular examples when it is consistent with a business’ brand messaging. To truly be successful, your core values should be evident in both your leadership and your branding.

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