The dark side of charismatic leadership

When we talk of leadership what we conjour up is a person more capable than others, who takes charge of people and processes. But is it in fact that simplistic?
In the academic frame of reference scholars have aggregated as many as 65 different types of leadership. The most apt definition I have come across is the one by P G Northouse, who refers to leadership as a process rather than a person: “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Leadership: Theory and Practice, SAGE, 2010). This is a pretty all-encompassing definition that applies equally well to the spiritual head of a monastery, an Army General or a corporate honcho.
Charismatic authority comes under the ambit of trait leadership. “Charisma” was defined by Weber as “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Charismatic authority is powerful in that the leader is able to lead followers with such potency that the following may continue even posthumously (spiritual leaders come to mind here). And, yet as with every type of leadership, charismatic authority has a flaw or two.
If we transfer this leadership type to the workplace, there is no doubt that a charismatic leader would more often than not be able to achieve his end goal, as his skills, personality and virtues would tend to ensure that his team leaders are enthused enough about achieving this goal. But it could be argued that in terms of deliverables, other types of leadership, including the highly centralized and autocratic type, would also produce similar end results.
This raises the question: Is good leadership only about achieving a common goal? Is not the ‘how’ of achieving the results also important? There is indeed a dark side to charismatic authority that one needs to be aware of: Since the follower’s level of trust is so high, it may mesmerize to such an extent as to blind her to any weaknesses that the leader may have. Perhaps the term “blind follower” stems from this.
Ironically the very flaw of charismatic leadership lies in the essence of “charisma” itself. Let me explain. It follows that if a team member at the workplace is in awe of you as the leader, that she will always remain your follower. This goes against the Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming – Storming – Norming –Performing), in which a team leader is meant to first guide the team and find solutions and then eventually bring the team to a level of maturity in which perhaps the leader himself becomes dispensable, while of course delivering results. An effective leader in the workplace is one who mentors and creates more leaders, rather than simply mesmorize his followers.
And thus, in the corporate environment, it is the transformational leader – the one that causes positive change in the followers by gradually transforming them into leaders while achieving results – who ought to be respected (as opposed to revered). The leader who is able to both recognise and nuture the full potential of team members, who recognises that leadership is not just a process in which you influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal, but is also about HOW you exert that influence. The leader who recognises that the journey is as important as the destination.

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One response to this post.

  1. Another possible flaw in charismatic leadership is that the personality of the leader in question mesmerizes so much that this may not allow for the full development and recognition of talented players one rung below the leader.

    Reply

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