Charismatic Leadership: Much Ado About Nothing

Leaders And Misleaders

What is being called leadership by self-appointed experts in the media, talk shows and elsewhere has little to do with what is now touted under this label. It has little to do with “leadership qualities” and even less to do with “charisma.”

The essence of leadership is performance and results. Leadership is a means to an end. The crucial question is to what end. Peter F. Drucker once wrote:

“The three most charismatic leaders of the 20th century inflicted more suffering on the human race than almost any trio in history: Hitler, Stalin and Mao. What matters is not the leader's charisma. What matters is the leader's mission…

…Effective leadership does not depend on charisma. Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and Harry Truman were singularly effective leaders, yet none possessed any more charisma than a dead mackerel…

…Nor did Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor {who rebuilt } West Germany after World War II. No less charismatic personality could be imagined than Abe Lincoln of Illinois, the raw-boned, uncouth backwoods-man of 1860…

…And there was amazingly little charisma to the bitter, defeated, almost broken Winston Churchill of the interwar years, what mattered was that he turned out, in the end, to have been right…

…Indeed, charisma does not by itself guarantee effectiveness as a leader. John F. Kennedy may have been the most charismatic person ever to occupy the White House. Yet few presidents got as little done.”…

Take-home message: Many charismatic leaders have turned out to be extremely toxic or misleaders. It's not charisma per se that Drucker opposed, but the kind of charisma that forces subordinates/followers to make the equivalent of a Faustian bargain.

It must be mentioned–indeed, emphasized–many effective/trustworthy leaders also possess charismatic personalities, but they use their charisma in pursuit of meaningful objectives.

Searching For Leadership Traits

It is a safe assumption that no management consultant rivaled Drucker's longevity in the field.

For seven decades he met innumerable leaders from business, church, military, academic, health, and countless other social organizations. And Drucker had the uncanny ability to determine exactly what made these leaders truly effective.

Yet Drucker strongly believed things such as “leadership qualities” or a “leadership personality” were given more emphasis than they should be.

Indeed, noted John Flaherty, "{Drucker} felt effective leadership is not dependent upon charisma nor a special kind of leadership personality…

… Drucker searched but failed to discover a uniform profile of successful leadership traits…

….Instead, he encountered a wide spectrum of executive characteristics in such extremes as human polarity as vanity and humility, brilliance and dullness, impulsiveness and deliberateness, good graciousness and remoteness, and boastfulness and self-effacement…"

Simply put, the quest for a consensual set of leadership traits is a hopeless search.

Drucker's view was that it is work to obtain performance and results. And work to yield results, has to be thought through and done with direction, method, and purpose."

Clarifying the Difference Between Leadership & Management

There is little question Drucker felt there was a strong need for training groups responsible for executive education to differentiate between leadership and management:

"Leadership is lifting a person's vision to higher sites, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations…"

Simply put, Drucker (and his co-author in several books Joseph Maciariello) emphatically stated we could with near-certainty teach people to be effective executives/managers but it was less likely we could teach people to be effective leaders.

Effective leaders in today's world of knowledge-based workforces must strive to make everyone a contributor not everyone a boss. Drucker felt executives and the people for whom they are directly responsible should not ask themselves "what have I achieved?" but rather "what have I or can I contribute?"

This requires a strategy that everyone can understand and exactly what their contribution is to convert the strategy into operational reality.

An effective leader creates a spirit of performance in the organization that propels its workforce to strive for excellence, communicates tomorrow's vision with extreme clarity and energizes today's work assignments.

The Most Essential Trait of Effective Leadership

Drucker was dogmatic, however, in insisting on integrity as the one absolute trait of leadership. This characteristic might not lend itself to an easy definition, but its absence should disqualify a person for a management position.

In amplifying this point, he wrote: “Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says. It is the belief in something very old-fashioned, called "integrity."

Good leaders, noted Drucker, accept the fact that they are ultimately responsible for the outcome. Harry Truman's folksy “the buck stops here” is an often-used definition of this requirement of leadership.

But precisely because an effective leader holds himself or herself responsible for the mistakes of his associates and subordinates, he surrounds himself with strong associates and subordinates.

Said Drucker: “An effective leader knows, of course, there is a risk: able people tend to be ambitious… But he/she realizes that it is a much smaller risk than to be served by mediocrity.”

So, What's Effective Management?

We now know what is meant by effective leadership. Let's now discuss effective management.

According to Drucker, "Good management depends on effectiveness and efficiency…

…Effectiveness means doing the right things. Efficiency means doing things right. Efficiency must be built on a foundation of effectiveness…

… But even the healthiest business, the business with the greatest effectiveness, can die of poor efficiency…"

Drucker suggested the key to management effectiveness was practice. And as with any practice, job practice did not come automatically but could be acquired through constant learning.

In other words, management effectiveness is not an inherited natural gift. Managerial success is not based on superior talent or intelligence put on applying talent and intelligence to the right things.

According to Drucker, not so good managers, apply their talent and intelligence to the wrong things and are ill-trained to ask the right questions.

READ MORE: Beware! Getting The Right Answer To The Wrong Questions Misdirects And Misleads 

The Two Tasks Of The Executive Management

Harvard's Ted Levitt noted "The foundation of effective management rests on two tasks–namely: (1) deciding what is to be done (for a nation, a business firm, or a social-service institution) and; (2) deciding how to do the job, organizing and controlling its execution, and measuring its results…

… No nation, institution, or utopian coddling can by denial or procrastination escape the necessity of these management tasks…"

Charisma has nothing to do with carrying-out these management tasks. Only by following the prescriptions and principles advocated by Drucker, Levitt, Jim Champy, Tom Peters and countless others can these tasks be successfully accomplished.

In Summary

Charisma perhaps can be likened to a medical practitioner. When you choose a doctor, do you look for a magnetic personality and likability or a highly experienced, knowledgeable practitioner with a very high percentage of favorable outcomes?

The answer is obvious. If the doctor also has a wonderful bedside manner, has charm, and other admirable attributes that would be an extra plus.

But you would be making a major error to substitute charisma for effectiveness and/or competence.

Peter F. Drucker believed that effective leadership is not about specific leadership qualities and charisma, despite all the verbiage to the contrary found in numerous books, news articles/editorials, and elsewhere.

In the final analysis, the only leadership/management test is the results. The best leaders best tend to be the best learners. They continually learn and, quite frankly, are to paraphrase Tom Peters "the best' askers,' and ' best creative imitators'…"

Further, the best leaders/managers understand that their task is to increase corporate wealth through continuous productivity improvement of its workforce and purposeful innovation.

After all is said and done, making the right things happen takes years of experience, skill-building, a sense of urgency, and a never-ending pursuit of excellence.

Leaders need followers. And the right followers are not easily fooled. They know when they are properly led and the leader's mission is the right star to steer by.

Related Reading

Peter F. Drucker in a 1988 Wall Street Journal entitled Leadership: More Doing Than Dash demolished the notion that effective leadership is linked to charisma.

Jean Lipman–Blumen in The Drucker Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2010) penned a beautiful chapter entitled A Pox on Charisma. She provides provocative insights and thoughtful prescriptions about leadership in today's frightening world.

John E. Flaherty in Shaping The Managerial Mind provides an excellent synthesis of Drucker's thoughts relating to leadership and the job of the executive.

Joseph Maciariello, perhaps the world's most celebrated authority with respect to Drucker's incredible contributions, details in Drucker's Lost Art Management & A Year with Peter Drucker, the major "watch out's" related to charismatic leaders.

We highly recommend reading the above-mentioned materials. They deliver a powerful and timely message.