Among the most dangerous of the many troubling features of the modern leadership movement’s prescriptions is its cultivation of the idea that leadership, at its best, is expressed by individuals so possessed of the leadership persona that they simply infect “followers” with the impulse to follow them. This is most often characterized as charismatic leadership, and it retains a strong place in writing and teaching about individual leadership to the present day.
It is the most perfect form of the depiction of individual leadership according to the personality characteristics and traits of exemplars of leadership. That is to say, it is strictly about the leader- follower relationship – the peculiar magnetism attracting the faithful and uncritical alignment of the latter to the service of the former.
A particularly disturbing issue with this is the fact that such leaders actually do exist. We’ve all seen them, and we’ve been influenced by them – even drawn into their orbit, often with increasingly satisfying stupefaction the nearer to the crackling core of charisma we approach.
But you understand, of course, that this sort of leadership has nothing to do with what we are about at work. In following the impenetrably hypnotic leadership of such leaders we don’t advance our stated corporate goals, increase our abilities, or further our careers. We surrender control. We do what they say because of who they are and how we have found ourselves relating to them.
Indeed, the more we enter into this careering kaleidoscopic, oddly reassuring world of pure personal magnetism, the more we find ourselves drinking the cool-aid on faith, sacrificing ourselves for the arrival of a greatness we don’t understand, or even finding ourselves justifying the most degrading service to the most despicable causes.
Really. Both throughout the length of social history around the world, and certainly in recent business history as well, this is a sadly prominent part of what uncritically followed charismatic leadership has produced. First, we are confident in our faith in the extraordinary characteristics of whatever leader into whose magnetic field we’ve been captured. Later we are chagrined, at the very least, at what we’ve done under his or her spell, reluctant to admit it to ourselves, much less to reveal it to others.
Surely, though, there are many who will argue that charisma is not, in and of itself, harmful. But there are two issues here.
First, the matter can indeed be argued. At the very least, charisma can be very real, and when it is, it is a form of power. We all know, of course, what continuously accumulated, unchallengeable power does. What’s more, there is a good bit of evidence that charisma isn’t a description of positive personality traits, but rather a consequence of rather more negative ones.
Second, even if we can stipulate that it is value-neutral in these respects, then what is its use is in business? Remember that charisma is not a tool that managers consciously and calculatingly use. It is a persona that controls its possessor every bit as much as it does those who fall into its ambit. What is the organizational value here?
So, if it isn’t harmful (again, an arguable proposition), where is the actual evidence that it is helpful? Why would you want to introduce into your organization personalities that immediately depart from your – from their own – control?
Magnetic personal leadership is about the person. But is there no form of individual leadership that has organizational value? We’ll look at that next. Please stop in.
Today’s Tip: Speaking of business leadership, there may be reason to believe that it is best located according to societal – rather than personal – characteristics. Please see this Schumpeter column from The Economist for why.
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