Dangers of charismatic leadership by John Zinkin - The STAR
JACK Welch believed effective leaders exhibit four characteristics: personal energy; the ability to energise others; the ability to execute; and the ability to make tough decisions, which he called edge. These were his “4Es” of leadership.
If what we want is charismatic leadership only, he was right. Charismatic leadership has been much admired in the past 30 years as a result of the media and Hollywood creating superstar CEOs – the boardroom equivalent of Superman. However, charismatic leadership has three potentially serious dangers: self-importance and ego; intolerance of different opinions; and dependent subordinates afraid to be accountable.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu recognised these drawbacks nearly 3,000 years ago when he defined great leadership:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves’.”
Self-importance and ego
I remember a CEO of Wesfarmers, one of Australia’s leading public companies, being asked what the secret of his success was. His answer was: “I take my job very seriously, but I do not take myself seriously at all.”
Successful, charismatic leaders can become self-important and driven by the need to feed their egos. The bankruptcies of Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers were in large part the result of the egos of their previously highly successful CEOs.
The same might be said of the problems faced by Manchester United – Sir Alex Ferguson failed to create an institution that could thrive after his departure – Lao Tzu’s key test of leadership.
The media and Hollywood are responsible for this cult of the iconic CEO.
Business success is the result of the brilliance of the CEO while the rest of the organisation – its people, products and systems – are ignored.
Followers are also to blame when their leaders become too obsessed with “I” and forget about “We” – Lao Tzu’s point. Followers who kowtow too much to their leaders will gradually turn the most empathetic and humble leaders into self-important autocrats. Medieval Europe understood this and kings had court jesters whose role was to point out their fallibility and self-importance. Culture plays its part too.
In so-called “High Power Distance” cultures where attention to protocol and keeping one’s distance from the people one leads is regarded as essential, it is really hard for leaders not to become self-important and cut off from reality.
Intolerance of different opinions
Charismatic leaders’ personal energy and their ability to energise others too often translate into an excessive focus on the leader’s way of doing things, captured in the phrase “My way or the high way”. Sir Alex Ferguson was famous for his intolerance of divergent opinions.
The advantages of such an approach are that everybody knows what is expected of them, how they are expected to perform and time is not wasted debating alternative ways of doing things. This may work well in a stable, unchanging environment, but is likely to lead to failure in a dynamic, changing
world where the past is not a good guide to future success – i.e. today’s business conditions or the EPL.