Home > Creativity, education, leadership, research > Leadership and charisma: what’s the relationship?

Leadership and charisma: what’s the relationship?

George S. Patton signed photo by U.S.
Image via Wikipedia

a New York Times article examined charisma as a requirement for leadership and concluded it wasn’t an absolute necessity. Here are my reflections on that article:

I found the article interesting, but it had a few anomalies that seemed odd to me. Just let me get those out of the way, as I have been in a cranky mood lately.

The point of the article is that you don’t need charisma to be a leader and yet they select Blair and Sarkozy as examples of non-charismatic leaders and yet describe them charismatically, even adding that Sarkozy’s wife is a fashion plate. Putin has made an art of his charisma: he knows the Russian people.

In the example of Australian prime ministers, they make the assertion that Australia has the world’s highest percentage of naturally rugged men, and yet for the life of me I don’t know how they could validate that claim. They then suggest that the two Aussie prime ministers that made effective, brave decisions were not charismatic at all. The only problem with this insight is that the men rose to positions of power in bureaucracies and not necessarily based on their charisma.

The authors introduce the three part model of leadership suggested by Weber, but then are inconsistent with the application of the model.

If there really are three models of leadership that are situational, and the models opportunities are equally distributed, then algebra suggests that most of the time you did not need to be charismatic to be an effective leader, but I don’t think that’s the point they’re trying to make 😛

When charisma matters, I think it represents a shorthand estimation for the ability to continue to lead and inspire other members of the tribe during times of crisis when pure rationality or bureaucracy may not serve our interests. I think it’s a combination of animal vitality and energy, alertness, balance, and goodness of fit in the environment which we think will be good predictors of success in the future.

I think that’s why we attribute charisma to musicians so much, because they have a highly advanced sense of rhythm and they fit in the world around them. Musicians that capture the sense of the time in their words and music, we attribute as having a natural state of grace or wisdom that gives them the authority to render opinions on areas outside of their expertise. John Lennon and the Grateful Dead come to mind.

I cannot agree with their observation that speech does not matter, because in the world of sound bites, a properly timed sentence that is delivered in an inspired matter can achieve a tipping point. Michael Dukakis‘s answer in the 1988 presidential debate and most recently the Massachusetts senator race where the Republican observed that the seat was not a Kennedy seat or a Democratic seat but the seat of the people probably sealed the deal for himself what that sound bite.

Despite the shortcomings I think the article does make excellent points about modern leadership which has a strong transactional component in which performance over extended periods of time matter more than superficial appearance. However I think in our short attention span society that images will always play a significant role in our estimation of the total package due to our cognitive biases and emotional brains.

In the military we have a stereotype of the charismatic leader in the style of George Patton in which loud and bombastic, often profane, is conflated with excellence in battlefield command.

My personal experience has been that soldiers are not looking for showman as much as they are the quality of study under fire or grace under pressure which seems to equate to character and courage and selfless service. Leaders who have this quality exhibits a presence that can be felt like a field of energy and which is hard to describe in words.

It seems to be related to exude in a sense of appropriate column which inspires others to be calm as well based on our belief that the leader has things under control and can be relied upon in a crisis. This quality does not correlate to outgoing and bombastic behavior. It seems to be something that we can sense, particularly if we have experienced combat ourselves.

The leaders that I know who have exhibited this quality the most were often the humblest and quietest and most unsure of themselves prior to their first combat experience.

The other thing that I have directly observed is that we cannot know ahead of time who will actually manifest these qualities under direct fire. It remains something of a mystery.

my sense is that something like charisma or grace under pressure or some quality that is appropriate to the culture in the situation that transcends directly measurable qualities is always a part of the leadership equation. one of the ways I judge the presence or the quality of a leader is the sense he brings to the decision that needs to be made.

Does he make the decision for the sake of the decision and the result, or is he selecting decisions which are designed primarily to keep him in a position of continued responsibility.

Whose purposes is he serving and if she’s selfless?

These answers seem central to me in evaluating leadership quality and I don’t think this translates directly to charisma but it does translate to presence.

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