The media and society in general seem to be very focused on the importance of the ‘leader’. However, if you ask someone on the street what being a leader means, you will very often hear things like a leader is strong, has a vision, is charismatic or is a great speaker. When we think of leaders we may think of a great speech by President Obama or Winton Churchill leading his country through the dark days on World War II. While charisma may be one possible characteristic of a leader there must be more to the puzzle. To take this question one step further, could a focus on charisma as the focal trait of leadership actually be detrimental to organizations?
While there is a ton of literature on this topic, the first problem with a focus on charisma and the inspirational characteristics of leadership is the little we can learn from it in terms of replicable effective leadership strategies; in other words, you either have it or you don’t. The function of HR then becomes finding the few employees who have it and then focusing on them as opposed to developing leaders throughout the organization. In fact, when organizations focus on charismatic leadership and learn to depend on them they can very often be left in a ‘leadership vacuum’ upon the leader’s inevitable departure (Ryan, 2003).
While there are many other issues brought up in the literature, one other important problem with charismatic leadership is that it can very often cause employees to shy away from providing the leader with the absolute and brutal truth about the situation at hand. Employees may be afraid to be brutally honest due to the charisma of the leader since they may not want to anger or disappoint them. During the worst days of World War II this problem was so acute that Winston Churchill needed to create alternate avenues of getting real information about what was really happening on the battle field. (Collins, 2001).
So is there a better way?
According to John Kotter in an article titled “What Leaders Really Do”, he writes:
“Leadership is different from management, but not for the reasons most people think. Leadership isn’t mystical and mysterious. It has nothing to do with having “charisma” or other exotic personality traits. It is not the province of a chosen few. Nor is leadership necessarily better than management or a replacement for it. Rather, leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities… Most U.S. corporations today are over managed and underled. They need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership… with careful selection, nurturing, and encouragement, dozens of people can play important leadership roles in a business organization.” (p. 5).
Kotter goes on to make distinctions between the management tasks of planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling and problem solving and the leadership tasks of creating vision, aligning people, motivating and inspiring them (all of which can be nurtured and taught). In his article, Kotter outlines a system of developing leaders through recruitment, managing career paths and exposure to different perspectives. Perhaps his most interesting point is where he sites companies such as GE, 3M and HP, which purposely create opportunities for their employees to develop their leadership and managerial skills. (Kotter, 2008).
While leadership is a constantly evolving and dynamic topic, we would certainly do well to push the envelope in our understanding and admiration of what really goes into successful leadership.
Ryan, J. (2003). Leading Diverse Schools. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Collins, J. (2001). Good To Great. NewYork: Harper Collins.
Kotter, J. (2008). What Leaders Really Do. In Gallos, J (Ed.) Business Leadership. San Francisco: Joey Bass.