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Charisma And Leadership - Do You Have To Have It To Lead?


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"What's the difference between God and Larry Ellison?

God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison"

- Old Silicon Valley joke referring to the immodest boss of Oracle

The problem with heroes

There's an argument about charisma going on at the moment; specifically whether it's a good thing to have in a leader. The noisy ‘pro’ lobby is headed by Tom Peters, who likes to shout a lot (and is usually worth listening to, albeit from a safe distance). The ‘anti’ lobby is led quietly, as you'd expect, by whispering Jim Collins, author of Good to Great.

Peters loves swashbuckling, larger-than-life leaders whose personalities mirror his own. His former student, Collins, holds up as the acme of leadership ego-lite, selfless ‘Level 5’ leaders, as he calls them, who happen to be as bookish as he is.

Now it took Peters himself to come up with a delicious insight, which I overheard in a seminar of his I helped organize. He was ranting about how wrong Collins was, when he suddenly paused and said, almost to himself: “I am increasingly convinced that when writers write, whatever we think we are writing about, we are actually writing about ourselves. " True.

Peter Senge points out that the problem with the leader as hero paradigm, which tends to come with the territory with charismatic leaders, is what happens when they are not around. They put themselves at the centre of the action and always expect to fly in and save the day. (1)

The Icarus Paradox

I think at the root of the argument is a confusion of charisma and ego. Charisma is assumed to embrace brashness, theatricality, basking in the spotlight. Nelson Mandela embraces none of those things, but he is perhaps the charismatic leader of our generation. We've all worked with magnetic, compelling people who are charismatic without the ego. But, I have to agree with Collins when he says this:

"The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse. " (2)

The Harvard academic Joseph Baradaccio says this about leaders who court greatness: “There is a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘Show me a hero and I'll tell you a tragedy. ’ There's (also) the age-old myth of Icarus trying to fly too close to the sun, and there is the suggestion that there is something dangerous about the pursuit of greatness. " (3)

A 2006 survey helped reconcile the argument about whether ego-heavy or selfless leaders are the most effective. It found that narcissism naturally drives people to seek positions of power and influence, and that therefore you will find more egotists at the top of organizations than among the general population. (4)

As for their performance, egotistical bosses tend to be less self-limiting, as you can imagine, gambling with more resources on their own judgement than less self-regarding leaders. They went in for more and bigger mergers, for example. Their results were consequently more extreme (bigger wins or bigger losses) than their Collins-inspired quiet leader peers. The greater volatility of narcissistic leaders is reflected in greater extremes of good and bad in their financial performance.

Bad to great?

So can you behave ‘badly’ - egotists tend to be arbitrary, take the credit and, even Peters admits, can be tyrannical - and still be great? I don't think so. You need to be able to subordinate your ego to be a great leader. Stephen Covey puts it this way:

"One area that leaders need to develop to become great leaders is conscience - subordinating yourself. This takes great strength. Both Hitler and Gandhi were people of vision, discipline and passion. The difference was conscience. Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, vowed never to shake the hands of the Israelis. But, he did just that - subordinating himself - for the sake of peace. When asked why, he said: ‘He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never, therefore, be able to make any progress. '" (5)

(This article is adapted from a chapter in Phil Dourado's book The 60 Second Leader: Everything you need to know about leadership, in one minute bites, published by Capstone/ John Wiley & Sons in 2007 and available from Amazon and all good book stores. )

Copyright (c) Phil Dourado

(1) The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge
(3) Leading Quietly, An Unorthodox Guide to Doing The Right Thing, Joseph Baradaccio
(4) It's All About Me, a study presented to the 2006 gathering of the American Academy of Management by Arijit Chatterjee and Donald Hambrick of Pennsylvania State University,
(5) Stephen Covey was talking at a conference I helped organize, the European Conference on Customer Management, in London in 2002. On the other hand, there is the ‘Hitler's ghost’ argument, which Barbara Kellerman puts forward in her book Bad Leadership. You need to distinguish between bad as in ‘ineffective’ and bad as in ‘unethical’ argues Kellerman, pointing out that Hitler was hardly an ineffective leader. I would argue, though, that few would call Hitler a ‘great’ leader. ‘Great’ is implicitly approving, with its meaning grounded in Aristotle's definition of greatness as leading a life characterized by a number of virtues (see Humility chapter). Therefore the word ‘great’ doesn't fit when applied to highly effective but unethical leaders.

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