Charismatic Leadership: Do We Still Need Heroes?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 16th April 2015

Charisma has long been considered one of the essential qualities of a great leader. But while the ability to generate enthusiasm is no doubt important, the broader idea of the charismatic leader has arguably become outdated. Instead, other factors have overtaken heroic charisma in the race to provide modern organisations with the leadership they really need.

Challenging obsolete ideas

Back in the 1950s, when much of the leadership field was being explored, many commentators made some assumptions that were perfectly acceptable to a post-war society, but that we find more challenging today.

Charismatic Leadership: Do We Still Need Heroes?

Among these was the idea that leaders were male, probably in their middle years, and almost certainly white. While we still struggle with representative diversity in our management cohort, most of our organisations at least now recognise the need to promote a better balance.

However, some of the other assumptions that we accepted in previous decades are still pervasive today. For example, the ideas that command and control is ‘strong’ leadership, that performance results from hard targets and constant monitoring, and that vertical hierarchy is the default form of organisational structure.

Perhaps the most prevalent idea that has endured since the first half of the 20th century, though, is that of the leader as hero, or ‘charismatic’ leadership.

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Early charismatic leaders

Much of the early work on leadership traits was based on the idea that leaders were born, not made, and that they were remarkable people who had natural leadership qualities. Such leaders were held up as being heroic in stature, and as achievers of great things beyond a normal person’s abilities.

Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or even Jesus Christ, were all exemplars of this viewpoint; huge characters with massive charisma. Their public speaking and storytelling techniques still resonate today.

Is charismatic leadership still relevant?

The things is, though, that this style of leadership works well when there is a compelling cause to follow, and when people are in desperate need of a figurehead to rally behind. But in today’s organisation, is that really what we need?

Of course, there is little doubt that there are certain attributes that give someone a natural advantage as a leader: a large proportion of CEOs are of well above average height. They may have a commanding presence or a compelling voice, coupled with great skill as an orator.

But I would still argue that leaders can undoubtedly be ‘made’. Today, some of the best leaders have reached their position by becoming experts in their field, skilled coordinators of people and resources, great talent-spotters, or having good people-management skills.

The heroic style also tends toward a more ‘macho’ attitude, where followers are passive and accept the leader’s right to decide things on their behalf. Does that work in the 21st century? Will generations Y and Z respond well to this style? I suspect not.

If not charismatic leadership, then what?

While heroes can have great impact, what we really need every day is leaders who can bring people together, and create a climate that promotes team work, innovation, and high performing products or processes.

Perhaps one good example of this modern leader would be Sir Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco: a relatively unassuming man, but one with strong principles and the ability to think, plan, build, develop and coordinate a great team.

It is certainly time that organisations recognised the need for a more feminine, nurturing style of leader. That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘female’ (though more of those might be a great help), but less ‘macho’, more open to sharing their authority, and more empowering and engaging.

Time to consign heroes back to the movies and get on with enabling our people to be the best they can be.

We’d love to read your views about the relevance of charismatic leadership to the modern organisation in the comments below.

To find out more about how to shape your leadership style to the needs of modern organisations, consider one of our leadership and management courses. To find out more, get in touch below.

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