When people think about the “ultimate leader,” there is a tendency to consider the larger-than-life individuals who invigorate a room with their charisma, omnipotence, and swagger. While these people exist, they are extremely uncommon. Many managers try to emulate these characteristics only to find that they are unable to sustain the energy required to constantly be “on.” That’s why I like the distinction made by James Corden.
In a recent interview with James Corden, the Tony award winning host of The Late Late Show, he discussed his theory that there are two categories of actors. As he describes it:
There are two types of actors—aliens and humans. And neither is better. Genuinely, there is no better. We just watch them in different ways. So your aliens are Daniel Day Lewis, Mark Rylance, Ray Fiennes where you look and say, ‘I don’t know how they are doing that, that’s amazing.’ You look at them on a pedestal and go, ‘this is astonishing to me. I don’t know how they are doing that.’ And then there are actors where whoever they are playing and whatever they’re doing, are representing us, the audience. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example of someone who is astonishing and amazing and yet finds a humanity which is always representing you.
You can watch Mark Rylance or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet and then you can watch one of my favorite actors in the world, Simon Russell Beale, with the text and one you are watching saying, ‘I don’t know how this is happening’ and the other you’re going, ‘whoa, that’s me up there.’
Aliens and humans. That is how we classify ourselves. In the leadership realm, aliens include such luminary favorites as tech maven Elon Musk, sports legend Phil Jackson, media icon Oprah Winfrey, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Mark Cuban. The rest of us are humans.
There is nothing wrong with being a human. As Corden said, these are the people who we can see in ourselves. There may not be much hero worship, but their draw is in their relatability. “Human” leaders inspire because they can connect on a personal level. They are less intimidating, more approachable, and more replicable.
There are plenty of humans who would like to become aliens. Unfortunately, the ways aliens practice leadership are aspirational, yet ultimately unattainable. There’s no harm in trying (depending on your level of authenticity), however a more realistic goal is to incorporate their habits in a seamless, natural manner that matches your style and the culture of your organization. Try a few of these tips:
Aliens are vision-oriented. An alien leader is renowned for their focus in a particular area. They have a clear, uncompromising vision and use it to set expectations for their team. With this understanding, employees are largely empowered to complete initiatives on their own. The leader remains involved to the degree needed and, so long as the vision remains intact, they can cede control knowing that the direction of the organization is in good hands.
Aliens innovate. Those who have risen to the alien-level of leadership did so by transcending the status quo. They are obsessed with finding new, inventive solutions and surround themselves with self-motivated people who are also willing to take bold risks.
To be more alien, you must increase your team’s threshold for taking chances. While your inner monologue may be conservative, to build a culture of creativity, others need to feel free to take calculated risks without fear of reprisal. To demonstrate how to fail, admit your failed attempts, including what you learned and how you will avoid making the mistakes next time. When someone else fails, use it as an opportunity to laud their risk taking. And, if you are feeling especially generous, incentivize failed attempts to motivate others to make their own ambitious attempts.
Aliens are involved. Whether they are interacting with employees, investors, or vendors, alien leaders are engaged and hands-on. They seek chances to network and are committed to learn as much as they can from others. Aliens also prioritize development opportunities where they can coach, mentor, and provide feedback. They handpick protégés and remain acutely aware of their responsibilities, challenges, and progress.
Attaining an alien’s level of involvement is a practice that all leaders (humans included) can easily grasp. Carve out time in each day to remain connected. Regular contact with employees positions you to be in-tune with the culture, the personalities, and the quality of work. You will also be more aware of the decisions being made and you’ll be able to enforce accountability in real time.
If you are torn between whether you’re an alien or human, just assume you fall in the later camp. After all, an alien is probably too removed to even consider this question. Once this reality sets in, it’s time to elevate the leadership of your mere humanness through alien-approved best practices. Set your vision, embrace innovation, and get involved. This may feel foreign at first, but by creating these preconditions for trust (a great term from HBR’s Sydney Finkelstein), you never know who will look to you as an alien.