The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

The Yin and Yang of Celebrity Leaders

The board of directors of a well-known, well-respected national nonprofit announced all agog to staff that the organization had just landed a high-profile former politician as its new president.

For all intents and purposes, the organization's selection for new president could best be described as a celebrity leader, someone with the personal charisma, cachet, and connections that could, in relatively short order, bring in millions of dollars from any number of corporations and industry titans as well as the general public.

Quite an envious catch! But as with all things, even celebrity leaders come with a price.

Is There a Celebrity Leader in Your Midst?

Celebrity leaders come in multiple versions. The one noted above was a national, if not international, public figure with high media visibility and public recognition.

But small communities often have their own versions of celebrity status, which may include prominent local business people, politicians, socialites, and philanthropists.

My experience with small and medium-sized grassroots nonprofit organizations is that popular, longstanding leaders or founders of these organizations often, over time, can take on a larger-than-life celebrity-like status of their own.

In the short run these folks may turn out to be good brand ambassadors, fundraisers, and even good leaders for their organizations.

But they also bring their own set of issues.

What to Be Mindful Of

Whether you currently possess a celebrity leader or are considering hiring one as part of your succession plan, here are some things to be mindful of:

  • Access.
    Upon arrival at her new job, the high-profile former politician I opened this article with brought along an entourage of loyal, long-time aides and advisors who effectively served as a buffer—nay, barricade—to accessing the new president.

    Having been a consultant for years to this particular nonprofit, and having had easy access to its former president, it soon became obvious to me, as it did to staff, that this was no longer to be the case, with negative consequences.

    I don't know about you, but I prefer a leader who gets in the trenches with us little folk, someone who seeks to understand the issues we and the organizations we serve face, rather than a celebrity who sequesters him-or herself in an impervious ivory tower, who dictates from on high—and whose decrees often do not reflect the organization's or staff's reality.
  • Who's giving to what—and why?
    As I previously mentioned, celebrity leaders have the potential to be good, if not excellent fundraisers. As we're all (painfully) aware, funding is the lifeblood of all nonprofits.

    With respect to celebrity leadership, the caveat here is that donors, large donors in particular, often give not necessarily to the organization and its mission but rather to the star-studded leader—for any number of reasons, including personal friendship, the need to cozy up to someone of note, or simply to share in some of the limelight the celebrity casts off.

    This is all well and good as long as the celebrity leader remains in favor—and with the organization. But what happens afterwards, when the leader leaves? Will the organization be left with both a huge leadership and fundraising hole to fill? Just something to think about.
  • Charisma doesn't always equate to leadership.
    Let's be honest, we're a star-struck nation. We're drawn like moths to a flame when it comes to people of fame and status.

    But just because someone has charisma and an aura of celebrity that intrinsically draws people and attention to themselves doesn't always mean he or she has the ability to lead us—or the organizations he/she has been hired to serve—to any meaningful destinations.
  • Ego.
    Need I say more about the complications this can bring to the dynamic of an organization and its staff?

I'm not saying exclude high-profile personalities from your leadership wish-list.

What I am saying is be sure to do your due diligence. Know with whom and what you're dealing—and don't allow stardust to blur your vision and decision making.

The-Yin-and-Yang-of-Celebrity-Leaders_Larry-Checco.jpgLarry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2013, Checco Communications

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding and leadership. His first book, Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization, has sold thousands of copies both here and abroad. His second book is Aha! Moments in Brand Management: Commonsense Insights to a Stronger, Healthier Brand.

Topics: Senior Executive Issues