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By Liz Nickles (author Brandstorm)

Leadership & Management Books Magazine
Q2, 2016

Do you hear them ROAR?

Brandzilla leaders, once rarified creatures, are not so stealthily taking over. Thanks to the Brandzilla Effect, without a brand, your garden-variety leader is not even going to make it to the mezzanine. Making the quarter and generating profit is just the ticket to get you to the security checkpoint of the Brandzilla Building, where more is more.

Branding today has gathered strength and become a tsunami, sweeping us away in an irreversible, irresistible tide. The supercharging factor that has changed the landscape is technology—the web, cellphone, iPad, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat—and their impact on global media. To provide some perspective, more than four times the total number of inhabitants of France at the time of Marie Antoinette viewed Lady Gaga’s first two videos online. It wasn’t long before Fortune 500 companies were calling on pop stars’ digital strategists to give them some insight, and the wheel turned into cyberspace. There have always been Brandzilla leaders. Now, they are like fires that have been attached to an oil refinery.

If you were growing a Brandzilla leader in a petri dish, the first two ingredients in the formula would be the two D’s—Digital + DNA. Leadership used to start with nurture—if someone was set on the right path, went to the right schools, knew the right people, was trained in the right skills, if the resume looked good and the references were in order, toss in management by objectives or some level of leadership training. But, at least so far, there is no business school curriculum at HBS or LBS, or human resources training program on how to become a Brandzilla leader. Such a program would probably be ineffective regardless. These leaders may emerge early—like Mark Zuckerberg—or later in life, like Churchill, who failed the entrance test for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst three times before finally passing and being allowed in the school. Churchill also made dozens of mistakes and managed to lose his seat in the House of Commons before getting on the track to Brandzilladom.

Traditionally, leadership styles have been driven by the leader’s relationship to others in his or her environment. A leader’s style may be, say, authoritarian (any dictator), inspirational (any Pope), team-oriented (any sports captain)—etc., etc. Not so Brandzilla leadership, which is directed inward, not outward. As a management consultant, I have written hundreds of handbooks, addresses, memos, annual reports, speeches and presentations for C-level leaders who are communicating their philosophy—their brand-- to their stakeholders and constituents. But a true Brandzilla leader has no need for Power Point; they don’t just live their brand, they are their brand, walking and talking and just plain being. If you are a Brandzilla leader, the Q&A is probably redundant. A Brandzilla leader doesn’t hide behind the brand; he or she is the brand. If it’s not obvious who you are and what you stand for and you have to whip out the paint-by-numbers portrait, you’re not a Brandzilla leader. This kind of leadership doesn’t coddle, mentor, or tiptoe. It STOMPS, and it leaves a big footprint. Go T-rex or go home. Will you break some china? Unavoidably. But even scorched earth regrows.

"A true Brandzilla leader has no need for Power Point; they don’t just live their brand, they are their brand, walking and talking and just plain being."

Take the Republican primary debates in the U.S. Presidential election. A lineup of candidates spilled out millions of words describing their positions from podiums. One, Donald Trump, gave short answers of minimal content. While the pundits were slicing and dicing the messages, they were working with words—which, in this case, were largely irrelevant, Trump, however, was a Brandzilla. His platform was him, and, in the primary stage, he exercised minimal verbiage that actually explained very little and offended very many. He won. This was a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. A non-brand will always lose to a brand, and a brand will always lose to a Brandzilla.

Tangle with a Brandzilla leader at your peril. They have been known to impale competitors and opposition in every sector—financial (Jamie Dimon); art (Gagosian); music (Beyonce); technology (Steve Jobs); science (Stephen Hawking); theater (Lin-Manuel Miranda). They can be controversial (Vladimir Putin). They can be young (Justin Trudeau). They don’t have a template because they are the beginning of the new next.

Qualitative aspects of Brandzilla leadership can be ephemeral, but they do not simply boil down to personality attributes or psychographic segmentation. Visual brand elements are key. Beauty is not necessary, but an iconic shape is. Think of Godzilla, rising from the waves with that scary visage, even if his arms are not proportionate. When you have a shadow like his, you don’t have to speak. Now think of Donald Trump’s hair—a joke to some, iconic to all. And Hillary Clinton’s uniform. Is it a skirt, pants, suit—or all of the above? In fact, it’s a walking Rorschach blot—interpret as you see fit. Clinton has mastered the Unique yet Universal Garment. No other women—yet all women--dress like this. The shape would be identifiable even if the woman was not inside it. The same could be said for Queen Elizabeth’s working wardrobe -- interchangeable outfits of the same silhouette, right down to the structured handbag, in a rotation of jewel tones and bright pastels. Her Majesty is of noble but unremarkable appearance, yet she long ago stopped needing a crown on her head to be physically identifiable. Neither of these female Brandzilla leaders are about fashion, yet their looks are unmistakable. The Man in the Grey Flannel suit could never be a Brandzilla leader. Look down—there he is, mired in the wetlands of middle management. Dress accordingly.

Every environment is not hospitable to Brandzilla leadership, however. In the business world, for instance, individuality is often sacrificed to the corporate entity, and the individual is expected to not just be the company ambassador, but to embody the organization, like a walking, breathing vessel. Unless a company is a sole proprietorship, group decision-making and management by committee usually creates a dynamic that does not foster or encourage Brandzilla leadership style. Yet its impact is undeniable. As a result, corporate Brandzilla leaders are usually airlifted in from the outside and rarely homegrown. However, there is one very fertile field. As entrepreneurial leaders increasingly emerge, bracketed by Baby Boomers who are being pushed out of or retiring from the corporate universe and Generation Y who are disdaining it, more Brandzilla leaders will erupt.

This sets the scene for ever more “Clash of the Titans” scenarios-- management by Marvel, the people who brought you Spiderman and The Hulk. As with Clinton and Trump, we will see seismic firethrowing and volcanic eruptions. This is why, in the 2016 US elections, accusations flew about candidates not “acting presidential.” But forget the white gloves; when the Gods fight on Olympus, the plates of the earth quake. There will be blood.

There will also be a new wave of iconery. Louis XIV was the glittering Brandzilla leader of his time— actually, of all times—who elevated his status beyond mere king to celestial twin of the sun. Le Roi de Soleil, The Sun King, he called himself. (If you’re going to anthropomorphize a sidekick, you can’t do much better than the sun—the source of all light and energy and ergo life on earth.) Louis cleverly cemented his stature as a double Brandzilla -- monarch by birth, soleil by association. Subjects were led to feel they were in the presence of the Sun God himself, and Louis did everything in his power—which was substantial—to perpetrate this brand—including, but not limited to, playing the role of the sun in costume in stage dramas, and having his surroundings, which happened to be Versailles, oriented according to the axis of the sun.

So what, you say. That was centuries past, a quaint if effective monarchist exercise in ego. Who does that now? True, Donald Trump plastered his name on a bunch of buildings and ran rampant on reality T.V. But isn’t he a black swan?

Maybe. But let’s drop into the Facebook campus Menlo Park, California, where we may at any given day find Mark Zuckerberg sitting at an ordinary desk—on an axis exactly in the middle of the office, surrounded by orbiting staff and signs and embellishments throughout the premises not of the sun, but of the Facebook thumbs-up “like” icon and the ubiquitous appropriation of the word “HACK.” Louis XIV has gone all digital. What’s next?

Somebody’s got to dial up the magic and bring us a unicorn.

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