I opened the June issue of Fast Company magazine to a full-page image of Cee Lo Green lying in a bed of puffy purple pillows. In the midst of this raw display of narcissism, this big man in pajamas is holding a cup of tea, as if to toast his own credentials as the ambassador of cool. The scene is amusing, but it is only half meant to be. The flamboyant image is serious and carefully crafted to influence people, particularly our children. Now the absurdity: Mr. Green declares, “I want to be a beacon of light in the darkness.”
The power of influence in the digital age is haunting. The democratization of influence has made it so. It can help us or hurt us. But our society seems to worship at the altar of influence to the point that we gently overlook or even dismiss its consequences. We adore influencers because they are influencers. We extol fame for its own sake.
Time magazine recently published a double issue titled “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” The lead article is a piece of marble cake, a commingled list of good and bad influencers. But they don’t talk about that. And so we encounter enormously positive influencers such as Khan Academy founder, Salman Khan, in the company of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. We read about soccer phenom, Lionel Messi, juxtaposed against Iranian supreme leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. The brave journalists compile their value-neutral list and we are left to draw our own conclusions. But our children can’t do that, at least not without guidance.
Stanford political scientist, Joseph Nie Jr., said, “Power is the ability to affect others to produce the outcomes one wants. This can be accomplished by coercion and payment or by attraction and persuasion.”
Our immediate concern shouldn’t be with those who use coercion and payment, at least not here in the West. The more serious threat is coming from the artful cunning of those who use attraction and persuasion to lead us toward destructive ends.
In the Twitterverse, Lady Gaga has nearly 27 million followers. I took the occasion to read her most recent series of tweets. How can I describe this? It is a dangerous cocktail when a person is desperate for attention and yet has nothing to say. Lurid, urban garbage. Ephemera. Talk about a chilly barrenness. And yet millions want to know what she has to say. If you took her costumes away, she would melt like the wicked witch of the west. But she cements the point that the human family is far too subject to the influence of pop icons. To me this fame monster is a small bore. Clearly, millions disagree with me.
The more monstrous fame monsters become, the more alike they become. Their craven attempts to be different ultimately become acts of conformity within the circle of the outrageous. As C.S. Lewis observed, ”Sameness is to be found most among the most natural of men.” But again, our children don’t know this unless we teach them.
When influence is good, we call it leadership. We can teach our children for good. We can teach them to tell the difference between leaders and those who impersonate them. We can teach them to understand that leading is not crowd-pleasing. It has more to do with forgetting yourself in order to help others. We can teach our children that leaders are not driven primarily by material gain, which, regrettably, makes them uncommon. Washington said, “Few men have the virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
Let me suggest a simple litmus test by which to judge fame monsters. In his book,"Coming Apart," Charles Murray explains that America is suffering from four dangerous trends — less marriage, less work, less honesty and less religion. Simply ask the question: Does this influence lead us to more or less marriage, work, honesty and religion? And here’s a second test: Arthur C. Brooks has identified family, vocation, community and faith as the four “institutions of meaning” in our lives. Ask a second question: Does this influence strengthen or weaken these four institutions? Our children can do that. Let's help them.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: [email protected]