08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Simon Says... You're Through to the Next Round

It's Tuesday Night.

Ryan Seacrest charms the crowd with his own brand of cheeky bonhomie and the scene is set for another emotional roller-coaster.

Because American Idol is back.

Pompously slated by some as sentimentalized 'bread and circuses for our times', the 'Idol' franchise and those of its cousins Got Talent and (in the UK) X-Factor, are produced with such emotional intelligence that they are impossible to ignore.

Susan Boyle or not, catharsis is guaranteed. In any one season we can pretty much be sure that:

- We'll snicker and feel simultaneously ashamed of ourselves as we watch the mental cases of the early rounds embarrass themselves with no apparent regret, (although we'll get over this quickly enough to do the same again when they're all bussed in for the finale where they'll grunt their way through some terrible number);

- We'll tut and shake our heads at the sheer naivete of the contestant who breathily pronounces " I deserve to win because I want this soooo much" (it's a talent show, not a faith show);

- We'll have mixed feelings about the person who is allowed to skip a round because they had laryngitis;

- We'll cry our eyes out as we see the contestants leave the bright lights of the studio sets to return to the dreary, one-horse towns they come from, turning keys in the front doors of humble houses filled with humbling amounts of the unconditional, uncomplicated love that only family can provide

But -- if we're honest -- we've all come to to see one man: Simon.

What does Simon think?

This is his show, his baby. It revolves around him. Have you ever noticed how contestants only really care what Simon Cowell thinks about their performance?

A 'yes' from the other judges is all well and good but if you don't get one from the big man too, your entry into the next round is like a piece of unbuttered toast -- it'll sustain you but it won't make you happy. And, more to the point, it will leave a niggly, uncomfortable dryness in the back of your throat that you just know will get you sooner or later.

So why is Cowell's feedback so highly prized by contestant and viewer alike? What makes his 'yes' worth any number of 'yeses' from Paula, Piers, Randy, Sharon or whoever else might be co-panelling with him, on either side of the pond?


Because you know that if Cowell tells you that you are one of the best singers he has ever heard, he means it. He's not saying it to make you feel better or to appear kind. Equally if he tells you that you should stick to the day job, he really believes that.

When people are genuine, in whatever walk of life, they are credible. It doesn't mean we have to like them, for goodness' sake. Just that we respect them. And as far I can see, pretty much everyone respects Cowell, on both sides of the ocean.

So what is so striking -- indeed puzzling -- about Simon is that his pedigree suggests otherwise: strictly speaking he really shouldn't be any good at all at giving honest feedback.

Because for all the razzmatazz and showbiz accoutrements, Simon Cowell is a fully signed up member of the educated English middle classes. With his Sussex, Hertfordshire, Dover College background, he could quite easily be your lawyer, a banker, a British Ambassador to somewhere or other, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

And this is particularly interesting, because the one thing this aforementioned group cannot typically do is deliver difficult -- or more precisely, simply honest -- messages. Now making such sweeping generalizations is -- on one level -- a mug's game and we have to be very, very careful about stereotyping here. But there's no doubt that Cowell is something of an exception for his 'class'.

Consider how uncomfortable your average lawyer, banker, diplomat or CEO would be in delivering genuinely honest feedback to his or her team.


American pals suggest the same is true of the US too; the worst, saccharine excesses, if you like, of the 'have-a-nice-day-I'm-grinning-though-I-hate-you' culture.

That may well be the case but of course in Britain we have had many more centuries to practice the delivery of unctuous bull to one another. Indeed, in the country of my birth one's ability to do this remains a necessary (although naturally insufficient) condition of membership into the elite that controls Britain. It's also worth noting that they cast a Brit (in the form of Ricky Gervais) as the man who 'invented lying' in the upcoming movie.

For me, it is the the very fact that Cowell and a handful of others (perhaps most notably fellow Brit Gordon Ramsay) are perceived in both the UK and the US as pantomime, Disney-esque baddies, which really tells the story. Because, rather tragically, in their pursuit of excellence -- or even, frankly, plain competence -- in 21th century Britain and America, both Cowell and Ramsay have become lampooned and caricatured as modern-day freaks; the exceptions to a depressing rule. Of course, like any freak worth his salt, each has sought to capitalize on this, and Hollywood has obliged.

But what about the rest of us? Does this cultural reluctance to speak the truth actually matter?

Well, yes it does.

In Britain, it goes to the heart of an insidious lack of confidence -- at both an institutional and individual level -- that has eaten away at some of our best businesses and organizations over the last decade or two. In turn, this lack of confidence leads to shilly-shallying, beating-about-the-bush, de facto tolerance of poor performance and -- ultimately -- decline.

Effective performance management -- which is really what we are talking about here -- goes to the heart of any high-performing organization. I do not know of a genuinely successful British business or public sector body that does not take a Cowell-like line on performance management.

This is absolutely not about a return to the bad old days of dictatorial, "only tell 'em when they've screwed up" approach to management, rather a willingness to tell people -- very simply -- when and how they did a great job, and when and how they didn't. Honest feedback, good and bad, regularly and frequently.

In America, the most obvious examples to me of this problem currently are political. Beyond the very small number of Axelrods, Emmanuels and the like, which of the people staffing the great and the good right now feel empowered, duty-bound even, to give honest, unvarnished feedback? To say no, even? Where, for example, was Sarah Palin's Simon Cowell when she was considering her response(s) to Letterman's low-grade gags?

And, whilst we're on the subject of the Governor of Alaska: when it came to picking a running mate, who was doing the straight-talking on the Straight-Talk Express?