Forbes has this week tweeted that charisma still matters in business no matter what the level of the leader’s intelligence, wisdom or constitution is. As we know, charisma is the powerful personal quality that some people have to attract and impress other people. With this hypothesis of Forbes, corporate and business leaders are drawn to the league of charisma which hitherto has been a sole preserve of successful movie actors and differentiated politicians. There is, of course, truth in the hypothesis. Not all successful leaders are charismatic but some successful leaders are, in addition, charismatic too. There would be general consensus that leaders of India, Inc such as Ratan Tata and NR Narayana Murthy are not only effective leaders from a standard leadership criteria template but are, in addition, charismatic leaders as well.
Charisma could occasionally be a family legacy but in most cases that does not, by itself, make for sustainable charisma. Mahatma Gandhi was a charismatic leader but his children did not become charismatic leaders. Indira Gandhi, as the daughter of charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru, commenced her political innings with some inherited charisma but quickly built her own unique charisma. Differentiated performance is a key aspect of developing charisma to the potential heights. Charisma in one field can lead to success and additional charisma in other fields too. NT Rama Rao and MG Ramachandran were charismatic movie hero-actors of Telugu and Tamil cinema respectively, and leveraged their movie charisma to become the elected chief ministers of their respective states. This has not always been true either. Amitabh Bachchan, the charismatic Hindi movie hero, failed to make a success of his organization for a business venture.
Charisma is not a skill that can be acquired or honed. It is an intrinsic aspect of one’s personality that is part genetic and part gets developed over the years. Most persons as they become successful become respected and applauded but not necessarily charismatic. The global IT industry has had several successful CEOs but very few have been successful as Steve Jobs. Clearly, charisma is a special quality of select leaders that draws people to them. They are mesmerized by not only their performance but also their ability to connect themselves with the general population, be it that of an organization or the society itself. Charismatic leaders connect with the people on physical (performance) as well as emotional (oneness) plane. Mahatma Gandhi became the charismatic focal leader for the yearning of the Indian people for independence. Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao (Banish Poverty) slogan became a major performance credo that connected her to the poorer sections of the society.
What leads to charismatic leadership has not been researched conclusively. It is, however, clear that transactional leaders cannot be charismatic leaders. Transformational leaders, though not necessarily all, tend to become charismatic leaders. Charismatic leaders tend to be natural products of a context in which their capabilities and values resonate with the larger organization, developing a strong emotional and psychological bond between the leaders and their followers. Trust and credibility are the key pillars that reinforce charisma. Charismatic leaders are open to self-sacrifice, self-evaluation, self-correction and even self-atonement. They choose typically unique ways to go through these processes as undoubtedly Mahatma Gandhi did. As a result, charisma is not related to position or power. Charisma endures even if leaders do not seek power or even if they exit positions of power.
Charismatic leadership is not essential to organizational success but charismatic leaders do make iconic firms. Infosys as the Indian IT bellwether under Narayana Murthy, Tata Group as India’s global conglomerate under Ratan Tata, Panasonic as the electronics pioneer under Matsushita, Microsoft as the software giant under Bill Gates, Bose as the pure audio synthesizer under Amar Bose, Apple as the iconic innovator under Steve Jobs and scores of such companies illustrate that fact. The alchemy between performance competencies and charismatic dimensions of a leader are contextual. Jamshedji Tata, the predecessor to Ratan Tata was a paternalistic leader who was also a charismatic leader in a regimented, socialistic phase of the Indian economy. Ratan Tata who succeeded him was less charismatic in comparison to JRD but had a distinct performance and growth orientation in a rapidly liberalizing Indian economy. Both had contributed enormously to the growth of the Tata group in a contextually appropriate fashion. Each built on charismatic aura over the years.
In the public domain, the negative aspects of unbridled charisma that were put to negative uses constitute certain dark chapters of history, with such leaders causing unprecedented human misery through world wars and other forms of strife. In a corporate context, charismatic leadership has its own pitfalls, especially in monopolistic, entrepreneurial or family companies. The sway held by charismatic leaders over their followers and internal as well as external stakeholders leads to stifling of debate and concentration of power. Charisma at times leads to perceptions of infallibility on the part of such leaders and their followers. Companies led negatively by charismatic leaders with all the attention on themselves eventually become vulnerable to more nimble and competitive firms led by leaders with more consensual decision-making. Truly charismatic leaders who keep a watch over themselves for continuous self-improvement can, however, build truly iconic firms.
While truly charismatic leaders could be few and far between, it pays for every competent individual to discover the charismatic components one is blessed with, and work on them. At a genetic level, these could be the physical personality and the mental intellect. However, as competencies develop, people tend to acquire certain unique attributes and competencies that could make them more charismatic than others. These could be differentiated value system, mesmerizing communication skill, focused execution ability, multi-faceted conceptual capability and so on. Leaders must utilize these unique attributes to connect with others and help their teams succeed in shared goals. As a leader’s canvas expands in line with his or her upward movement in the organization, the charisma also grows with the leader. Charisma does not mean or require rabble-rousing or awe-inspiring speeches, delivered with the full force and power of the leader; rather it involves listening to the multitudes with empathy and feeling the pulse of the organization and society for the leader to be able to respond with focus and empathy.
Fundamentally, people are attracted to leaders by promises and eventually leaders are judged by their people for their performance. The balance between promise, performance and charisma tends to be contextual. Charismatic leadership works to different levels of effectiveness in different settings. Leaders on the shop floor and in the marketplace preferably need a charismatic personality to convey their messages with the required degree of impact and homogeneity. It is perhaps less relevant, even less appropriate, to rely on charisma when leading a competent peer group or intellectually driven subject matter experts. There are certain research findings that suggest that a group of extroverted subjects are, rather surprisingly, led better by an introverted leader, and vice versa. Such research also suggests that whether the groups are homogenous or heterogeneous, and whether they are extroverted or introverted, charisma works. This probably explains why entrepreneurial firms on rapid scale-up mode, troubled firms facing turnaround situations and conglomerates with several thousands of employees are drawn to charismatic leadership, especially.
Responsibility of charisma
There is no doubt that a charismatic leader can be electrifying and energizing for the organization. Whether he or she would, in fact, be empowering or enslaving is the determinant of success of organizations under charismatic leaders. As with most leadership factors which act as strengths as well as weaknesses, charisma also acts both ways. Charismatic leaders need to constantly evaluate whether their charisma inspires others to greater creativity and productivity or just keeps them spellbound, looking for constant guidance and direction. An organization’s interests are better served when the hope and energy unleashed by a charismatic leader are channeled systemically and systematically by a companion leader towards creativity and productivity. Political leaders have, for example, discovered the need painfully through experience. The spell cast on the electorate by the charismatic political leader needs to be converted into votes by a well-oiled election machine.
The charismatic leader has yet another responsibility; he or she needs to be equally charismatic when leading large gatherings, managing small teams or interacting individually. The elements of charisma may vary across the three settings but the core characteristic of leading based on the leader’s unique differentiators, listening with empathy and responding with assurance would remain the same. One can only think of Mahatma Gandhi again for his unflinching and unwavering charisma across widely varying situations, whether one of inspiring the great Indian masses or debating within the Indian National Congress leadership team or negotiating with adversaries such as Winston Churchill or Jinnah. Charisma that is built on competencies and values, and reinforced by empathy and responsiveness tends to be invigorating and empowering. The journey of charismatic leaders is a continuous one of self-evaluation and self-actualization for the broader benefit of organizations and societies they represent and lead.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 14, 2013