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Is Charismatic Leadership Still Alive?

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Daryl Horney

A colleague and I were discussing charismatic leadership over lunch. Mind you, my colleague is in the early stages of writing her doctoral thesis on the subject, evidently a topic dear to her. She proposed two questions for me: "Does charismatic leadership create greater levels of performance amongst their followers? Is charismatic leadership still alive?" I was perplexed.

If I recall correctly, and attribute charismatic leadership to traditional leadership -- a trendy and hot topic of study that was popular during the late 1980s and into the 2000s -- then I would say, “Unfortunately, charismatic leadership is still being practiced in many organizations unfamiliar with the progression in leadership trends around them.”

The trend has certainly shifted from that traditional style of leadership toward a manifestation of what many authors and business leaders are referring to as, “leaderful leadership.”

One of the main shifts in focus is from the individual (traditional) leadership style to the collective (leaderful) leadership style. Avinoam Nowogrodski, CEO of project-management software at Clarizen, “attributes his company’s success to hiring the right people and leading democratically,” suggesting that all employees have a voice and can participate in the leadership process.

Another shift has been in the area of employee engagement -- a topic that is close to me academically and as a practitioner -- where the shift has altered from a controlling (traditional) stance to a collaborative (leaderful) approach. Chris White, who leads the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan explains: “By focusing on building relationships with your employees, you can discover their full capabilities while also providing them with a feeling of ownership over their work and a greater sense of well-being.”

A more expressive example is contrasting the dispassionate leader (traditional) to the compassionate leader (leaderful). Fred Keller, the CEO of Michigan-based plastics manufacturing company Cascade Engineering, started a program called, “Welfare to Career.” According to Keller, “The company brings aboard people who have been on government assistance for long periods.” It’s a program about giving people second chances. Keller doesn’t only provide jobs, but also provides careers. After the program began, “the culture changed; Cascades’s retention rates rose, as did employee satisfaction,” Keller said.

Now, back to the questions presented by my colleague. Do charismatic leaders affect their followers in a way that generates greater productivity?

Charismatic leadership can create a distance between its leader and its followers. When the leader and follower are in contact, this contact can be “superficial and mediated in nature” further suggesting that charismatic leadership has no real positive effect on followers.

Still, one can argue that charismatic leadership can produce high performance levels among followers, as was the case when Sir Ben Ainslie was credited for winning the America’s Cup in 2013 for his charismatic leadership. I believe it was a combination of Ainslie’s sailing skills and his collective leadership abilities that helped inspire and drive the American team to come back and seize a win over their challenger, New Zealand.

It is my opinion that charismatic leadership is slowly fading away like the flip phone. It’s not yet extinct but is being used less and less by management professionals. It’s being replaced by the new tenets of leaderful leadership: compassion, shared leadership, collective thought and collaboration. Charismatic leadership has been a temporary bandage effective only to boost morale and creativity for the short-term. It does nothing more than allow a person to create a powerful self imagine that facilitates a false perception, enabling them to gain a small flock of obedient followers (usually out of fear) and a large number of disgruntled employees.

Employees try to make sense of what their leaders envision. They do not depend on their leader's charisma to get them there. Their leader may inspire them, but they depend on their own actions and the actions of their colleagues.

Charisma is a great characteristic to have around. It may get employees motivated, provide extra energy and it may even make employees want to work extra hours. However, it’s the practice of compassion, shared leadership, collective thought and collaboration that creates greater levels of performance, inspires trust, promotes communication and engages employees.

Image credit: Flickr/Olivier Carré-Delisle

Daryl is responsible for strategy and business development activities for the U.S. market at Instinctif Partners, Engagement and Truth, a strategic marketing insight consultancy. In addition, Daryl is completing his Doctorate in Business Administration concentrating in Change Management and Organizational Behavior at the University of Liverpool.

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