Style Is The New Substance

By Guest Blogger, Lee Meadows, PhD

During a recent visit to Atlanta to attend the NAAAHR national conference, I was privy to a roundtable lunch conversation in which I knew two of the eight people who made up our small group. As is the case, in ballroom settings where lunch is served to over 300 people, conversations tend to occur side to side to offset the noise that permeates the room. While I was content to enjoy the tea, absorb the noise and think about the next session that I would attend, I was drawn to a conversation by ‘Knows E’, the mythological god of upheaval, in which a young attendee was, enthusiastically and, somewhat annoyingly, conveying to her table companion her excitement at receiving feedback from one her MBA professors that she is “ready to be a CEO right now”! While I am a big believer in pumping up the confidence of any young people whom I encounter on this journey, I do realize that the things I had to accomplish to achieve the ‘sage’ like wisdom that keeps me up at night is very different from what is perceived as ‘expected accomplishments’ by others. So, before I could excuse myself from the conversation, ‘Knows E’ turned me in the direction of the conversation and forced me to say, “Pardon my interruption, but may I ask you a couple of questions?” To her credit, she was very receptive and gave me the permissible nod.

“When your professor mentioned your readiness to be a CEO, was he referring to you being a CEO of a start up company, an established mid-size non-profit or of General Electric?”

Her reply, and this is a direct quote, was “Does it matter?”

“Well it would matter a lot to GE and to that Non-profit. You could be a CEO of your own start-up if you can get the funding.”

That is when the defensive posturing kicked in. “I just completed my MBA from (an ivy league institution) and my professor assures me that my style makes me CEO material and I can run any one of those companies right now.”

It gets better! “Do you know if your professor has ever been a CEO?” I asked.

“He has consulted with a number of CEO’s,”

“So have I, to your knowledge, has he ever been a CEO?”

“Not to my knowledge,” She replied.

I had a number of things rolling through my head while I considered my next response. The branding, trending, reality TV, Internet sensation, thrust-into-the-celebrity-limelight of the digital age has produced the unintended consequence of replacing substance with style as a way of, quickly, advancing in a competitive field. How else does one explain how someone can become rich and famous for being the best at twerking! There have been a number of people whom I have encountered along the way who have made the case for their advancement by portraying their internships, fellowships and part-time activities as more than what they really are. It occurred to me how easy it is for leaders in organizations to be drawn in by the image of what they see without digging into the essence behind it. I even considered the possibility that maybe I am the one out of step with the times and should stand aside and let style be the new substance. It, also, occurred to me that time on a path, lessons and wisdom gained through experience cannot be confined to my own self but has to be shared, whether well received or not. Toward that end, I said

“There are certain insights your professor lacks because he was never a CEO. Don’t make being a CEO the end game, immerse yourself in a series of experiences that when converged will make your CEO readiness more palpable to a Board of Directors who will need the substance of who you are over the style that you convey.”

“That could take a while,” she said.

“It’s supposed to.”

As I stood to leave, I gave her one of my business cards. “If I can ever be of help to you, feel free to contact me. I know that becoming a CEO is the result of a mix bag of experiences, contacts, timing and the universe. However, you just might prove me wrong.”