Thursday, 20 August 2009

Charisma - friend or foe?

Charisma and the cult of charismatic leadership has generated many millions of words in the leadership field. If you don't believe me or aren't aware of the debate, try Googling the term and stand back. I just did and got nearly 7 million references. The two camps of pro and anti-charisma have been battling it out for decades and the jury is still out.

I can understand why. Those who are pro-charismatic leadership (often perhaps those who see themselves in that vein - or should it be vain?) cite the power of a heroic personality to lift people's spirits to, as Gardner put it, 'conceive & articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts'. This is much easier to do if a leader is seen as a heroic figure; one people would be happy to follow into battle. The antis cite historical figures such as Napoleon or Hitler as examples of the way such charismatic leadership can lead people down dark roads - the pros can counter with Churchill and JFK, Mandela and now perhaps Obama. It's pretty much an unwinnable argument.

The crux though is this.

If we need, as leaders, to 'unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts' - and we do - then we have to find a way that works and that suits our context, personality and relationships with the people. If you are a natural Churchill (not the dog) and a compelling orator, then it would be madness to waste it and communicate with people by newsletter or email - use the force of your charisma - but use it in the service of a worthwhile vision and goals. If you are more of a process leader or a technocrat, use the power of that - but recognise that it does not engage the hearts of people, however sensible the strategy. People need to be inspired to give of their best and go those extra ten miles. Structures, systems and policies can't make that happen - it happens through the F2F engagement of people in something they perceive to be 'worthy of their best efforts'. If you aren't the one to sell that vision to them. Use someone who is.

But make it real and make it happen.

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