Gangnam style and senior managers

20 November, 2012

Gangnam Style is a hit video by South Korean artist PSY. It was uploaded to Youtube in July 2012 and has so far scored 770 MILLION hits. It began as an aspiring number one song in Korea, got noticed by Robbie Williams and went viral. Unless you’ve been living under a log you will have seen or heard it. And you may well have learnt the horse dance too.

Last week the Oxford Union invited PSY to come and talk. Previous speakers here include Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, not to mention several prime ministers and presidents. PSY explains how Gangnam Style the global phenomenon was born. If you ever think about how charisma works, this is worth ten minutes of your day.

What’s striking is the debt he owes to choosing to be himself. This is just as hard in Korea as anywhere else, because its pop stars are supposed to be beautiful (and thin), and PSY is a little overweight.

After years of trying to make it, he finally accepted that he wasn’t going to be taken seriously as a classic pop idol. But then something inspired him to look inward. He had always made people laugh when he danced because he did it unselfconsciously and with total passion. He describes how he came up with the song: ‘Honestly, I tried my best to be as ridiculous as possible…and finally I got Gangnam Style.’

And the relevance of all this to senior managers? There are thousands of differences, obviously.

But there is a tip senior managers could use. PSY’s Youtube performance is a global phenomenon because he drew on something unique to him. Senior managers easily lose sight of what makes them them, which has to be problematic for building trust. Oh – they’ll be one of the best at new business, or the most strategic, and all this is important. But unique? That’s much more primeval, but then we’re still primates. We mostly know right away when people are being themselves and when they’re faking it. This skill predates management by a billion years or so.

It’s riskier for senior managers to let the world see weaknesses. They understandably prefer to influence by deploying their strengths.

But the prize can be bigger too, can’t it? Laughter is the shortest distance between two people, said Victor Borge. We laugh at PSY’s daft moves because in him we see a little of ourselves – flaws and all. When senior people understand their own fallibility and use it, they encourage the people around them to experiment a little more and make mistakes – trusting that they have less far to fall than they feared. It’s hard to innovate if you never deviate from what you know. With a few obvious provisos about corporate risk, employees who try new things make their employers nimbler and more competitive.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Martin Amor November 22, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Nice! I totally agree.
Being yourself is the most fun you can have. The world conspires to help you, and teaches you what you need to learn at precisely the right moment.
I think it’s easy for human beings to imagine that there is one ‘right’ way of being – and that we must somehow approximate to that. I suspect that the child in us finds it tempting to believe that. In a sense, we finally reach adulthood when we realise that we are ok (brilliant even) exactly the way we are. And this is when it becomes possible to bring that out of others – which is why leaders who know themselves and like themselves nonetheless are the most inspiring.
Another excellent post, Jamie. You really are one of the most thought-provoking people writing in this space.


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