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The Problem With Charismatic Leaders

The business world loves CEOs with charm and vision. But research suggests chasing these leadership traits comes with plenty of dangers.

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The study of leadership involves a number of different popular models, as I wrote in the book Everything Leadership. One that has been particularly pernicious is the Great Man theory, in which certain people are born to leadership and others... well, aren't.

Silly, right? Great leaders--and remember, there is not one type of leader for all types of organizations and situations--have often had to learn how to lead. It's become clear that you don't have to be a white male of European descent to guide others effectively.

The closest heir to the Great Man throne has been the Visionary. Such people (Steve Jobs comes to mind), because they can see farther and more clearly, can move a company to greatness, inspiring everyone around them. You can hear the awe in employees' voices at certain companies when they mention the One at the Helm. Not only is there vision, but an implied charisma. And who wouldn't want to be like that?

Any entrepreneur who wants a strong business, according to some research out of the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick in the U.K. Christian Stadler, an associate professor in strategic management, studied the leadership and strategy of such century-old European companies as Royal Dutch Shell, Glaxo, and LaFarge.

Sustainable Leadership

The ones that made it through the long haul had a leadership style that Stadler describes as "intelligent conservatism." These corporate cultures focus on long-term success and steady growth. Management tends to listen to employees and has a deep understanding of the company, as 97 percent of CEOs were promoted from within. These are often the people who also direct a company through its biggest transformations because they understand how to structure something new in a way that will work with the existing culture, practices, strategic aims, and investor relationships.

Where Charisma Fails

The problem of charismatic leaders is, ironically, their strength. When a company is moving in the right direction, the charismatic leader can super-charge progress. They're very good at getting people in the company to move in one way or another. But when they start to move in the wrong direction, they're just as good at getting everyone to nod their heads and move in lockstep.

Vision is important, but so is a keen sense of hearing. Leading a company means working with all the employees. Why assume that you're the only one with a good idea or keen insight?

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: May 6, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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