The charisma conundrum

Biden. JPGMy esteemed colleague, Deb Brown, recently penned a Stand-Up Executive blog entitled, 'Are you charismatic?' In the text, Deb referenced an article that lists ways in which one can become a charismatic leader that others listen to.

Deb says, "I believe that you're not charismatic until the audience puts aside their texting and tweeting to listen to you."

To which I respond, Do I really want/need to be a charismatic leader?

I'm not alone in questioning the importance of charisma to leadership. Indeed, Dartmouth B-School Professor Sydney Finkelstein, published a book entitled, 'Why Smart Executives Fail.' In it, he lists seven habits of spectacularly unsuccessful executives. Guess what habit he included? Yup. Charisma.

Finkelstein says, "When executives become media darlings intent on burnishing the company's image (and their own) at every opportunity, they lose their operational focus." Catastrophe often ensues, he adds. And, the academic says, "if you can name a company's CEO,  that alone may be a sign the company's in trouble." Yikes.

Finkelstein's P.O.V. sure holds true for the likes of Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski, BP's Andrew Heyward, Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein and the tarnished golden boy of Wall Street himself, Jamie Dimon.

One could argue all of the above were charismatic leaders. And, one could support Finkelstein's claim that all of these guys placed personal accolades above operational excellence.

Then, again, there are those charismatic leaders who DID succeed: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Welch are just three examples.

I see charisma as a value add, not a trait to be learned, mastered and then used to manipulate the masses. Guys like Mussolini, Hitler and Saddam Hussein showed us what can happen when charisma is used for all the wrong reasons.

So, what's your take? Do you agree with Deb Brown that charisma is a trait every business person should add to her arsenal or should it be weighed against other personality traits that may be better suited for the leader in question and the business being led?

I can tell you that public relations has very few charismatic leaders. Indeed, some are an absolute bore. But, these very same leaders have built strong, successful brands without being lauded as PR's  JFK or Ronald Reagan.

It's a conundrum, don't you think?

7 thoughts on “The charisma conundrum

  1. I agree that if charisma is used in the wrong way — such as manipulating an audience — then it’s definitely a negative. And, yes, I agree that some successful leaders lack charisma. But, if a successful leader learns how to effectively engage an audience (i.e. through stand-up comedy training) and is more charismatic as a result, chances are he/she will capture an audience’s attention as opposed to boring them. This can only help a successful leader be more successful.

  2. Charisma is not learned. It is a trait that either you have or don’t. You cannot be more or less charismatic. There is a difference between successfully engaging an audience, being compelling or appealing and having charisma.

  3. No. USAToday ran a story about a woman who wrote a book saying that you can learn to be charismatic. Another in an avalanche of self-help books written by self proclaimed experts promising that “you too can be popular.” To wit, it contains such enlightening nuggets of wisdom as “Be a good listener.” Puh-leeze.

  4. I think it’s a case-by-case situation at best, Deb. Charisma can be an important value add to an established and effective leader. But, I don’t think charisma alone makes a leader or makes more people follow a leader (unless we’re talking about rock stars). I think most employees want direct, honest leaders. I’m not so sure they want zealots.

  5. I agree, Dandy. One either has what Clayton Fletcher calls ‘it’ or one doesn’t. Stand-up comedy training (or any other type of training for that matter) can’t change the way a person’s hard-wired. Sorry, Deb.