Popular leaders are influential leaders. Do you agree?

         It was apt when John Maxwell, American author, mused that “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” Often, people become more receptive towards the opinions and ideas of leaders if they were likeable individuals, who were kind, caring and encouraging. A group of such individuals is what forms the support-base of popular leaders — and these leaders can then gather supporters for their causes, becoming influential, for better or for worse. At the same time, though, we must also recognise that there are two types of popularity — sociometric popularity, which was what was earlier described, and perceived popularity. Perceived popularity refers to those who are well known for being popular, and are subsequently highly visible, but rarely liked by others. Both these kinds of popular leaders are people who become influential leaders, because they harness the advantages of popularity, funnelling their wide support-bases towards fulfilling their ideals and goals. The sheer number of supporters they garner bestow great legitimacy upon which they can make a difference, and they are also able to push through with necessary, though sometimes unpopular, decisions, by virtue of the support they possess. In addition, some can make use of their soft power over others to initiate change and influence others. 

Critics of the thesis would be doubtful of the influence that leaders without a clear vision can bring about. They postulate that the determining characteristic that makes leaders influential is the quality of their ideas and thoughts, not their popularity, because that is what determines if one’s policies and suggestions will be pushed through. In spite of this claim, it is undeniable that the popularity and following of these leaders would prove essential in helping them influence others around them. Sociometrically popular leaders can capitalise on the connections and relationships they share with their followers to convince and spread their vision and ideas. In this way, the followers popular leaders have confer upon these leaders a sense of legitimacy that extends the reach and impact of their policies. Hence, popular leaders are easily able to galvanise their followers towards a common goal, so as to achieve their objectives. The very structure of democratic systems lean in favour of these popular leaders — the characteristic of majoritarian rule serves to show that popularity is the premise to being placed in positions of authority, and subsequently implement their policies and suggestions. In contrast, even leaders with the best of ideas but lack a following is unable to become influential, because of the lack of recognition and support for these ideas. Therefore, those with large followings that like their leaders for their personalities and traits — sociometrically popular leaders, in short — hold the legitimacy to push forth their ideas and become influential. 

At the same time, even leaders who are perceived to be popular are influential ones. Though some may not be liked for their individual attitudes and traits, they can still garner popularity from those who share their vision, and thereby institute change, so as to influence others. Nelson Mandela is one such leader. Despite the aggressiveness and thirst for power he exhibited in order to wrest power over his political party, many look up to him for his bold vision and achievements. Such followers granted him popularity, with which he was able to influence South Africa by winning the elections and then implementing economic, social and political reform. Ultimately, it does not matter what one does to obtain it, but the popularity a leader has is instrumental to his becoming an influential one. 

Skeptics would adamantly insist that popular leaders pander too much to the desires and wants of their following, which hinders their ability to make a meaningful impact. However, there is no reason to treat such populism as an immediate harm or problem. Sometimes, the only way in which leaders are able to institute change and implement policies is by pandering to some of their followers, in order to tap on them as either financial or human resources. Without these resources being accorded to them, there would be no way in which unpopular leaders can ever crystallise their ideas and goals. For example, the Jewish lobby in the United States holds great sway in politics, especially during times of elections and campaigning. This is because the lobby is able to flex its financial muscle by agreeing to fund the political party that it agrees with most hugely for their campaign. As a result, it is these leaders who are able to gain advantage by pandering to such groups are those who actually wield the power to influence societies and make an impact. 

As a corollary, sociometrically popular leaders are able to sway over the support for certain causes by virtue of the fact that they are people who many look up to and listen to. As a result, the soft power that they possess often give them the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people, so as to bring important issues to attention. Noting that leaders are not limited to merely the political sphere, sporting stars and media celebrities are hugely popular leaders of their industry, and hold the international limelight. By making use of their popularity in such situations, they can become powerful advocates for, and campaign for various causes. For instance, famous beauty pageant Miss World is linked to many humanitarian causes, such as starvation in Africa, and poverty in less economically developed countries, and their annual winners, whom are thrust into the limelight, go on trips around the world to promote and help out with these humanitarian causes. Angelina Jolie, a famous Hollywood actress, has also used her fame to raise awareness of displaced persons as a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. These are all examples of such industry leaders who are largely popular, who can make use of the attention they receive to forward important social causes to benefit others and make an impact. 

In essence, it is true that popular leaders are influential ones as well. Not only are they able to use their extensive followings as pillars of support to forward their ideals and visions, they are also able to gain reputation and support simply for being well known for being popular. Through these means, they are able to initiate change through legitimised action and extensive resources granted to them by their followers, and influence their followers to spread their ideas and to support their decisions. This makes them influential leaders. 


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.