Taylor Swift, the famous pop star, may seem like an odd role model for today's CEOs, startup founders, or leaders. But after viewing her acceptance speech from last night's televised Grammy Awards, I am convinced it should be used as training material for anyone in a leadership position, because she managed to change her role in the public eye from victim into strong advocate.
It was a class act way to deal with painful personal attacks, but it was also a genius move that changed the conversation, garnered support from her base as well as a much wider audience, and raised awareness of a much higher cause than her own personal role in the public conversation.
Change the conversation.
It was during the 2009 VMA Awards that Taylor Swift's moment onstage was disrupted by Kanye West, and she was catapulted into a long, very public discussion about the controversy. Fast forward to 2016, when that same musician decided to claim credit for her fame while referring to Taylor Swift in vulgar, misogynistic terms in a song on his new album, forcing the star once again into the public arena because of his actions.
In the days leading up to the 2016 Grammy Awards, the public debated about the best way for Taylor Swift to respond and whether or not she should respond. But in her second acceptance speech of the night, she squashed the public debate while also becoming the first female artist to ever to win Album of the Year twice.
"If you just focus on the work, and you don't let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you're going, you'll look around and you'll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there and that will be the greatest feeling in the world," she said in her acceptance speech.
How does this apply to us as leaders and CEOs?
When someone else is creating controversy and trying to drag us into their drama, our initial reaction is usually to talk about what is being said and how it isn't true. And while leaders should follow the guidance of their legal team when addressing erroneous claims, it is also good to remember what we learned in middle school -- that the more you talk about someone else's gossip, the more believable it becomes.
Taylor Swift refused to allow the conversation to remain about someone else's lyrics or behavior. She never said his name from stage or brought up his words. But she certainly addressed the controversy he created but took the power back by changing the conversation from how she was a victim to how she was a role model delivering inspiring advice.
Keep the message about your brand or goals.
Whether you are a founder of a new startup building tomorrow's best widget, the CEO of major corporation, or someone in leadership who has unfortunately found yourself in the midst of scandal, bad press, or a smear campaign, it is possible to use the controversy to remind your core demographic of why they should remain loyal and protective. Taylor Swift chose to remind her core fan base why they were fans in the first place -- she spoke directly to them. In doing so, she inspired loyalty among her core demographic and respect from a much wider audience beyond her own fans.
Bring focus to a higher cause.
Across cultures, there's a rich body of evidence showing that people continue to hold strong gender-role stereotypes, expecting men to be assertive and women to be communal. When women speak up, they run the risk of violating that gender stereotype, which leads audiences to judge them as aggressive.
Because Taylor Swift did not focus on her own personal experience but spoke up about the higher cause of inequality for women, she reminded others that she is a leader and an advocate, not a victim. By encouraging young women to focus on their own work instead of the controversy that might surround them, she made it about all women, not just herself.
While personal attacks can leave us feeling wounded and angry, especially when those attacks are unjust, if we can turn our own personal pain into an authentic call to a higher cause, we can effectively neutralize the personal component of an attack while gaining respect and support from a much wider audience.
Taylor Swift may be best known as a famous pop star, but she is also a savvy business woman. It is never an easy thing to manage public image and brand -- for a new startup or a mega-star. And when things get personal, it can be easy to allow others to control the conversation about us and our brand. But we can all take a lesson from Taylor Swift on how to protect our company, our brand, and our image.