Charisma Is Not Enough. Great Leaders Execute
Over the years, whenever and wherever I've asked a group of students, executives, or academics to list the five most important attributes of leadership, charisma always makes the list.
The 19th-century sociologist Max Weber greatly emphasized the importance of charisma. For him, charisma was a deeply rooted personality trait that enabled individuals to attract others by the sheer power of their dramatic presence. When you are in a crowd listening to a charismatic leader, what do you tell yourself? In your semi-deification of the charismatic leader, you may engage in self-exclusion. The message you tell yourself is, "It ain't me," and by the cultural glorification of charisma, society tells most people, "It ain't you."
Implicitly or explicitly, many leadership experts maintain that your dramatic presence and the power of your personality are essential to your success as a leader. But I ask you to look around. The fact that some charismatic people are leaders doesn't mean that charisma is the litmus test of leadership. As Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as many others show, leaders are defined by their actions and ability to execute, not only on their charismatic personality.
For all the debates and discussion, reflection and counter-reflection about leadership, it's pretty straightforward. Leaders aren't remembered because of their dreams, aspirations, or intentions. They are remembered because of their accomplishments. They are remembered because they took ideas and made them concrete.
As an entrepreneur, as a leader, as a person with drive and ambition, what you care about is moving from potential to execution and that means moving an agenda. Charisma and vision may get you in the door, they may even get you elected, but in the final analysis, leadership is about execution.
So when you hear the charismatic individual painting her vision, remember that flare is only a very small part of leadership. What you need to do is put your emphasis on those bite size skills that will assure that whether you have charisma or not, you can rally people around your ideas and move them forward. Unlike charisma, these bite size skills are learnable. They are not in your genes and not dictated by your personality.
You can learn to be politically smart about who to listen to and who not to listen to, you can learn how to persuade people, how to sell your ideas. You can learn how to get people on your side. You can also learn how to be managerially smart, how to engage and enhance your team, to assure forward movement. In the end, great leaders meet their potential because of their political and managerial competence.
History mystifies leaders beneath an unapproachable veil of charisma. It distances our charismatic icons such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, recalling their most dramatic speeches. But how much of their time was spent on the front stage? How many speeches did they really give? Most of their time was not spent giving charismatic speeches but in the micro-skills of selling their ideas to small groups, convincing others to join them, and making sure that their teams could move ahead and achieve results. We celebrate their charisma, but it is important to remember that they were successful because each day they applied their political and managerial competence. And that is within your potential, too.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.