As elusive and yet desirable as an adequate understanding of leadership may be, there is no denying the fact that we have a tendency to overestimate its importance. James Meindl and his collaborators refer to this phenomenon as the romance of leadership. These researchers discovered that when there was no direct or unambiguous evidence to indicate otherwise people attributed organizational outcomes to leaders. This was especially the case in extreme situations where either great success or utter failure occurred. As Jackson and Parry point out, in these instances: “leadership acted as a simplified, biased and attractive way to make sense of organizational performance.” Meindl further suggests that opinions about leaders are socially constructed by followers. Part of the explanation for this behavior can be attributed to social contagion, the way in which ideas and opinions spread like a virus among interpersonal networks and groups. Similarly, the amplifying effect of media coverage can both shape and influence public opinion about leaders, as both heroes and demons make for valuable news content.
Evidence of this process can be found in the ‘celebrity CEO’ phenomenon. It is difficult to think about Richard Branson, for example, without at the same time thinking about the Virgin brand, and all of the positive and negative connotations associated with it, and therefore with him. Similarly, think of the once revered domestic icon Martha Stewart who fell from grace when she was found guilty and jailed for insider trading, and then remarkably had her image and her empire redeemed and reconstructed after her release. Bill Gates of Microsoft, who was often demonized for the stranglehold that the MS-DOS and then Windows operating systems had over the personal computer industry, was transformed into an icon of social consciousness thanks largely to the influence of his wife Melinda, who got him engaged in a number of philanthropic projects. The social cachet of the Gates family and its charitable foundation rose even higher when they recruited Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, widely acknowledged as the world’s most successful investor, to their cause.