From watching the entrancing trailers to reading about the standing ovation it received at the Cannes Film Festival, I was looking forward to seeing the movie Rocketman. What I didn’t expect was how much it would exceed the hype. Delightful, gritty and filled with moments of magical realism, this touching story about the rise, struggles and ultimate redemption of Elton John was mesmerizing. Beyond the strong entertainment value, it can also teach us a few things about authentic leadership. Four lessons that come to mind include:
1. Be true to yourself.
The most influential leaders live in alignment with their values. They embrace their authentic selves in daily interactions with others within their personal and professional life. Elton John was born Reginald Dwight, a shy kid raised in a dysfunctional family situation. He didn’t have a cool “rock star vibe” and a talent manager said John wasn’t good-looking enough to be the front man. But his talent was extraordinary and shined through. However, the pressures of fame prompted him to lose sight of what mattered most personally as he built a public persona around the expectations of others. When John ultimately got back in touch with his values and presented his true self to the world, his career soared – winning an Oscar, six Grammy awards and a Tony award, and scoring his best-selling single of all-time, “Candle in the Wind 1997.”
2. Admit when you’ve made mistakes.
Think being a successful leader means everything has to look perfect? Owning your missteps actually makes you more approachable and credible. Doing so also gives others permission to explore innovation and new ideas, because you have made it okay to learn from situations that don’t operate as smoothly as possible. When he goes to rehab in 1991, John admits to being a total jerk for 15 years. (BTW hard core fans, I’m not trying to spoil the flick; this is a matter of public record.) Taking that ownership was essential for his healing and continued sobriety today.
3. Surround yourself with great people.
As noted in this interesting interview between leadership experts Marshall Goldsmith and Frances Hesselbein, a leader is only as good as their team. They noted, “the best leaders understand that long-term results are created by all of the great people doing the work — not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.” Elton John did that well with Bernie Taupin, the songwriter he calls his brother. Taupin’s unwavering friendship and now 50-year creative partnership with John helped them both achieve incredible heights of success. However, John paid the price when he put trust in a manipulative business manager back in the day who cared much more about making money that the rock star’s well-being.
4. Pivot when needed.
Let’s say you racked up numerous promotions over the years by being the enforcer, known for making hard decisions and cutting jobs without any sign of emotion or empathy – even when that style didn’t match who you are as a person. But now that you are part of an executive leadership team, having a positive culture and strong employee engagement is essential for your business. It is never too late to pivot to a new, more authentic way of leadership. Elton John gained international acclaim for an avant-garde identity based on outrageous costumes and behaviors throughout the mid-1970’s through the 1980’s. Eventually though, those over-the-top get-ups and a reliance on drugs to produce at a non-stop pace overshadowed John’s beautiful music and damaged his well-being. His decision to pivot, get clean in rehab and then live authentically resulted in a happier, more fulfilling personal and professional life.
How do you embrace authentic leadership? What lessons have you learned about being a better leader from professional or personal role models?