Why would we ever consider “charismatic leadership” as a good thing?

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Charismatic leadership has been in the news a lot recently.

On the USA side, you’ve got Donald Trump as President. You can see him as a carnival barker, possibly — or an example of charismatic leadership. The Atlantic has even discussed this. Then, in another example of the rising tide of nationalism, you’ve got Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. He’s potentially an example of charismatic leadership — and/or he’s essentially ordering the murders of thousands of people only loosely tied to drugs. Germany, which maybe has the worst history with charismatic leaders in world history, has another one coming down the pike. The Economist has a roundup of many of these examples, too.

That’s Tier I: what’s happening globally and politically.

Tier II is that a lot of people love to assign buzzwords all over the place when it comes to leadership. Servant leadership! Charismatic leadership! Strategic leadership! Communicative leadership! In reality, most people have no idea what “leadership” really means. (Here are some places to begin that journey, as an aside.) Usually how you define and contextualize leadership is tied to where you’re at relative to the power core. What I mean by that:

  • People higher up in a hierarchy tend to view “good leadership” as “this guy makes money.”
  • Lower down a chain, “good leadership” usually means “This guy is less of an asshole than I had predicted.”

At different stages of your career and within a company, you want different things. Only logical. As an extension, you want different things out of leaders. In this rich tapestry, “charismatic leadership” would seem like mostly a good deal. It means you’ve got a magnetic, charismatic person at the helm. Probably pretty fun! Some good meetings!

Actually, no … it can be vaguely terrifying. Let’s explore.

Charismatic leadership: Quick personal example

Last place I worked had a truly charismatic leader at the helm. He had been CEO forever. I think his dad founded the place, too. This guy (the CEO I knew) was charismatic leadership 101. Because we worked in a global B2B-type travel network, he essentially knew people (and had friends) all over the world. Very cool! This dude would change his Facebook profile picture and have 1,077 likes. There would be 455 comments, all of them like “A true visionary leader!”

Charismatic leadership seems really cool, but it’s a very slippery slope.

In some ways, this was inspiring. He also seemed to mostly “get it” around things like employee engagement, and that’s heartening.

In other ways, this charismatic leadership was terrible. This is a stereotype, but a lot of times, guys like this end up believing their own hype. (This is where formal power becomes dangerous.) When you believe your own hype, you don’t want to see any threats to that hype. This creates a culture of homophily (this place had it bad), and it creates a dynamic where the top dogs only surround themselves with yes-men. (Also the case here.)

Great charisma gets you really far. We all love Will Smith or Bill Clinton or whoever. But it also does something really tangible to the person with the charisma, and that can have serious issues for the overall idea of leadership.

Charismatic leadership pause: For those that fear Trump, who’s the analogy you always hear?

Dow Jones just hit an all-time high, and Trump’s approval rating is ticking up over 50. But for those that do fear him, what’s the analogy you always hear?

That would be Hitler. Again, am I saying Trump is Hitler? No, I am not. But am I saying that Hitler is a good example of charismatic leadership and maybe the best marketer in world history? Indeed, I would say that.

It’s very hard to write the words “Hitler” and “something good” in the same sentence, so maybe this should be a mini-case study in some of the flaws of charismatic leadership.

Charismatic leadership: Some research

New-ish from Harvard Business Review entitled “When Charismatic Leadership Goes Too Far.” Give it a whirl. Hit this pull quote especially hard:

Charisma, when it’s based on deep conviction of shared success and when it’s skillfully projected, can help a leader be very effective and an organization thrive even during difficult times. But avoiding its dark side requires the leader to add attention to the culture, self-awareness, self-management, and, perhaps most of all, the humility necessary to truly listen.

Right. Everything has a dark side if it’s not managed correctly. The problem here is the final sentence. Self-awareness is no doubt very important — but it’s soul-crushingly rare in leaders and teams. Self-management? OK. Most leaders ignore that concept because it can’t be taken to scale. Humility? LOL. Find me 100 leaders. I will find you maybe 4–6 of them with any sense of humility.

Because of the lack of focus on these antidotes, then, charismatic leadership can often run out of control. That’s not good.

How can we maximize charismatic leadership?

Here’s the advice from that article above:

Sliding down the slippery slope will be less likely if the culture emphasizes open communication, including a structured method to extract learning from every success and mistake. Forums must exist where the big bets of the strategy are debated, including a talent plan that ensures a match between the strategy and the people who must achieve it. Feedback must be a company norm that people are trained in, and it must be encouraged and rewarded.

Let me reword that paragraph for you here:

Gag gag buzzword buzzword vomit gag gag audible fart noise gag vomit buzzword.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Feedback is a joke at most companies. Strategic plans could just as well be written on toilet paper. Talent management strategy is held together with toothpicks, Scotch tape, and lies. Most people care about “making money” and “grabbing a fat bonus” and that’s it. Capitalism, and any sense of work being worthwhile, erodes with a culture of me-first target-humpers looking for a way up the ladder.

This is what happens with charismatic leadership. A series of guys look at the charisma guy and say “Oh, he’s gonna go far. I’ll attach myself to him.” Then the charisma guy goes far, but as he goes far he stops listening to those lieutenants. In fact, if they have their own ideas, they probably get forced out of the circle. Now you’ve got one charismatic leadership dude and 7–10 complete yes men. The role of the yes men is to shield the main dude from any criticism, feedback, or new ideas. Your culture is now utterly toxic, and/or your nation will be a punchline for 60+ years. Neither is good. See where it becomes a slippery slope?

So what do we do about charismatic leadership?

Here are a few steps:

And finally: if you see charismatic leadership emerging and clearly it’s tanking the culture of where you work? Stop it. And if you’re not far enough up the hierarchy to stop it, leave. Get out. It’s the only way.

At that gig described above, I got fired. In reality, it was because I fucked up some credit card receipts and it looked like I was jacking money. (I wasn’t, but that’s a longer narrative.) That’s the functional, logical reason it went down. The broader, emotional reason? I talked about this stuff: yes men, charismatic leadership, homophily, culture flaws. That shit terrifies people. Work is ultimately about getting to a perch you like and feeling comfortable there. That also means surrounding yourself with your own yes men. I didn’t fit that mold, and boom, cashed out at 2pm on a November Friday. That’s life in corporate terms.

What else would you add on charismatic leadership?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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