cat wearing round sunglasses

Leadership and Being Uncool

This post first appeared on Forbes.

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” This is one of my all-time favorite movie lines, spoken by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Creem magazine’s editor Lester Bangs giving advice to the fictional William Miller, a teen music critic whose story is based on filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s own youth in the 1970’s writing about rock ‘n roll for Rolling Stone magazine in Almost Famous (2000). 

I have always loved the story of this naïve teenage journalist’s adventure and his relationship with his offbeat and curmudgeonly mentor. Bangs is portrayed as a true lover of rock ‘n roll, an anti-authoritarian with a passionate commitment to authenticity and to being brutally honest in the face of celebrity culture. He connects to the boy through their shared love of music and their mutual uncoolness. Throughout the story he comes to William’s aid and offers comfort and advice.

What struck me when I watched this film the other night with my husband and son is how this celebration of uncoolness applies to personal development and leadership. You can’t be a creative leader or a good teammate if you are worried about being or seeming cool. 

Wanting to look cool is a close cousin of the fear of looking stupid. Being concerned with coolness leads to avoiding risk and denying vulnerability which inhibits us from forming relationships.  And, as vulnerability guru Brené Brown argues in her book Dare to Lead, vulnerability is essential to leadership, as it promotes the connection, communication and trust that foster innovation and collaboration.

I’m also tempted to see characters William Miller and Lester Bangs as exemplars of  Harvard psychologist Bob Kegan’s stages of the development of adult consciousness. Fifteen-year-old Miller is in the “socialized mind,” where his identity, ideas, beliefs and behavior are shaped by external forces and he is driven to try to fit in and to please. Awkward and self-conscious, his yearning for acceptance and approval causes him to lose himself and his ability to see the band that he’s writing about clearly because, as Bangs says, “They made you feel cool… I’ve met you. You’re not cool.” Trying to be cool and fit in made it impossible for him to have the perspective required to write an honest article.

Apparently the real Lester Bangs was an alcoholic “wreck of a man,” but as portrayed in the film, the fictional Lester Bangs, messy and imperfect though he is, keeps perspective. His character demonstrates the next level of consciousness, the “self-authoring mind.” In this stage of development, an individual’s identity is not contingent on others’ approval. Bangs knows himself to be distinct from the tribe and is able to observe the overall system and his role in it. He possesses his own value system and strives to act with awareness and intention rather than reactively. Even Bangs’ outsider status and loneliness (“I’m always home. I’m not cool.”) may be further indication of his stage of development.  When someone shifts from the socialized mind to the self-authoring mind, they may not fit in anymore or may leave jobs or relationships behind. 

Kegan and research partner Lisa Lahey suggest that the majority of adults remain in the socialized mind. This can actually work okay, so long the world is relatively simple and predictable. But today’s leaders need to progress beyond the socialized mind in order to thrive in a world of increasing complexity When there is a high degree of ambiguity, our old models are not good predictors of the future and greater self- and systems-awareness are required to meet the challenges of increasing complexity.  Silicon Valley self-conscious hipsters beware: leave your coolness at the door and embrace uncoolness, vulnerability and uncertainty if you want to be an effective leader.

Perhaps I am over-reaching to write a “think piece” piece that characterizes this fun, frothy movie about an uncool hero as a deeper commentary on life and leadership. But, hey, if you’ve met me, you know that I’m not cool.