When you think of a good charismatic leader, who do you think of? The common response is to think of those leaders that have a high profile, particularly in the media, such as Richard Branson or maybe even Alex Ferguson. They are very different but both seem to share one thing; charisma.
However, what do you want from your leader? It might be the same qualities demonstrated by the two individuals mentioned. Or it may be something that feels altogether different. Because when we consider a leader that is much closer to home, it might not be just about what they can do but also how they make us feel.
The charismatic leader has many qualities that can never be underestimated. Their ability to engage an audience, to inspire an individual to want to follow them, not just because they have to. The charismatic leader can not only do this with their peers, colleagues and employees throughout an organisation, but also with clients and valued stakeholders. They seem to have an energy that attracts people to them, with enthusiastic ears, always willing to listen to what they have to say.
It is important that people trust what their leader says. This can also be the case with the charismatic leader, but not always. And whilst the charismatic leader ignites passion and purpose in the short term, what about long term strategy and results? How important is it to know that the leaders can not only open their little black book of contacts to generate significant revenue now, but also to set their organisation up for success once they have left to move on to pastures new or to retire. It is common practice for a new Chief Executive to already have their ‘exit strategy’ in place, on the day that they arrive, very often with their anticipated ‘end date’ being within three to five years. Does this promote a vested interest in the long term or just the short term? How will they be rewarded on departure, on achieving certain targets during their period of tenure, or securing them long after they have left?
Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great’, considers this in his Harvard Business Review article from 2001. He studied organisations that had gone through significant transformation and analysed their performance not just after a brief period of time, but after fifteen years, to see which ones had successfully embraced the changes to secure long term results. He then analysed the leaders of those organisations to see what qualities they had to ensure such a significant achievement. Collins looked at 1,435 ‘Fortune 500’ companies to study which companies passed the test of ‘cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next fifteen years’. Only 11 did and as he mentioned these were not a sample but rather the ‘total number that jumped all the hurdles and passed into the study’. Interestingly, the study did not begin with the sole purpose of analysing the senior executives, rather looking at which companies had the ability to jump from ‘good to great’. However, as the study progressed it was noted, ‘we can’t ignore the top executives even if we want to’. Collins identified two key components that were common to all these ‘long term leaders’ regardless of sector, size of organisation or time of transition The two key qualities were humility and determination.
The results of the article ‘Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve’ may sound counterintuitive today but when the article was published it was ‘downright heretical, the corporate scandals hadn’t broken out and almost everyone believed that CEO’s should be charismatic larger than life figures’.
This falls very much in line with the idea of ‘Servant Leadership’ identified in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, the idea that the leader ’holds’ that position in order to make sure the organisation is secure, flourishing and set for success so the next leader can take over the mantle to continue the good work, always with the philosophy of doing what is best for the company. With one eye on the present, the servant leader also has one eye very firmly on the future, way beyond the date of their own exit. It has to be said the charismatic leader is most certainly capable of determination and also humility. Just because they might be an extrovert, a visionary, a great speaker, and a good relationship-builder does not mean they are not humble, but it has to be that way. The charismatic leader must ensure, and demonstrate, that their primary role is for the benefit of the organisation, not themselves.
So what does this mean in practice to have one eye on the present and one eye on the future? It actually means making the most of the skills they inherently have. Whilst they do have the energy and personality to attract the attention of all involved, to be a visionary and to paint a picture that people aspire to, it cannot just stop there. The great leader will not only paint such an inspirational picture of the potential that is available, but will also articulate this with complete clarity. As a result, as an employee, not only do I see the vision of the future but I know exactly the role I play in order to allow the organisation to reach its full potential, because I will be reaching mine. I will understand the very purpose, the core, of what the organisation represents, be given clarity regarding the long term strategy, and understand our short term objectives. I will understand what I am doing, when and why. Not only that but the successful leaders of today will understand that the directive ‘tell and do’ leadership style is now outdated, that the true transformational leader will be empowering, an ideas generator rather than an ideas giver, a coach and motivator, as clearly identified by Bernard M. Bass 1985 in the work on ‘Transformational Leadership’ (later developed with Bruce J. Avolio). They will be collaborative, allow people to take part in the decision-making process where possible. They will give people a voice.
The leader here understands the significance of the next generation, ensures a clear and robust succession plan is in place, so when they depart, there will be a confidence that the legacy left is one that will see the organisation into the next decade, or even century. Also, that the younger generation actually want to step into the shoes of their elder leaders, that such a position is attractive, empowering and worth waiting around for. Already the younger generation not only understand that the ‘job for life’ is unrealistic, but they don’t even want it.
The great leader also paves the way for the next leader. What if the next leader is by nature, quiet and more reflective? They may think they have big shoes to fill, and they will, but to be given the seal of approval by the outgoing, and possibly more popular leader, genuinely and wholeheartedly, is important. And the next leader can rest assured, that although maybe quieter and more introspective, maybe not as natural at public speaking or radiating energy, they might just have a couple of qualities that do come more naturally, the qualities that Collins recommends so highly, humility and determination.
Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t’, 2001.
Jim Collins, Harvard Business Review ‘‘Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve’, 2001
Bernard M Bass, ‘Transformational Leadership’, 1985 (developing the original work of James MacGregor Burns, 1978 and laBruce J. Avolio)
Robert K. Greenleaf, ‘The Servant as Leader’, Essay, 1970.