The myths of leadership


“To Be A Good Leader, I Have To Be Charismatic”

Have you read about leaders being charismatic as if that was a necessary trait to lead well? As if you don’t have enough to do as a leader beside upskilling your charisma?

It would be a shame if good leadership meant we had to be charismatic, as charisma is not very trainable. If charisma was a significant component of leadership, much of the money put to leadership training would be wasted (and basically leaders would be born).

That said, it is an easy myth to fall for. You can be highly charismatic and a good leader or highly charismatic and a bad leader. You can have no charisma and be a good leader or have no charisma and be a bad leader.

Leadership is independent of charisma. This is even at the highest levels of leadership.
According to the management expert, Peter Drucker, John F. Kennedy was one of the most charismatic presidents in recent history, but he failed to accomplish much.

Drucker stated that Franklin D. Roosevelt had the charisma of a dead mackerel but was an extremely effective leader. As President he mobilized the United States against the threat of Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

Inspiration is different to charisma and is a leadership trait. Charisma may make others feel good, but inspiration tends to make others do good.

Another example is Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s non-violence independence movement against British rule. He was not a very charismatic individual, being rather direct and to the point in his communications, but many experts and ordinary people alike consider him to be one of the most inspirational leaders in human history.

Gandhi was the founder of the philosophy of “satyagraha,” which means “truth and firmness.” He called for large-scale boycotts, urging government officials to stop working for Britain, students to stop attending government schools, soldiers to quit guarding their posts and citizens to stop paying taxes and purchasing British goods. He even began using a portable spinning wheel to produce cloth for his own clothes, and the spinning wheel soon became a symbol of Indian independence and self-reliance.

Despite being arrested several times, Gandhi continued to focus on education, poverty and the problems afflicting India’s rural areas. His protests against the British Salt Acts, which prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt and imposed a heavy tax on this dietary staple for the poorest in the country, elevated him to international fame, including being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1930.

Over time, Gandhi did the “impossible” and, through his approach of non-violence, got his country to follow him and the greatest military power of the time to leave India.

From good to great

Even with these historical events, you still may have doubts about charisma and its role leadership, so let’s look at a business-based example about the subject.

Jim Collins wrote a best-selling business book called Built to Last, which compared visionary companies that had massively outperformed other companies in their field. He then identified what these visionary companies all had in common.

The book sold millions and, as the story goes, a colleague came up to Collins at one of his sales promotions and congratulated him on his book, then said it was “absolutely useless” because all these visionary companies had been great for many decades in the past. The colleague argued that the book did not show companies how to become great.

This got Collins pondering and he gathered a research team to look at what took a company from good to great. Too often, the assumptions made initially determined the answer. So, he used one simple measure: Companies had to have had average or below-average stock returns for at least 15 years, followed by returns of at least three times the stock market over the next 15 years.

The characteristics of the best CEOs

The results were published in 2004 in Collins’ next book, Good To Great. Out of the 1,435 companies that appeared in the Fortune 500 over the 30 years looked at, only 11 fitted the bill.

Each of them had CEOs who had two common characteristics, great determination and extreme humility. None were “charismatic” individuals.

Conversely, charismatic CEOs such as Jack Welch, who were being lauded by the top business schools at the time (and still are by many), did not have nearly as good financial performance, let alone other success markers.

It’s as if we have taken 2,000 years to learn from the example of the great spiritual leaders including Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Lao- Tzu, Confucius, etc. They all shared two characteristics, great determination and extreme humility.

Lao-Tzu’s comment on leadership seems to predict the findings of Collins, 2500 years prior:

“When a good leader leads, the people respect and praise him. When an average leader leads, the people ignore him. When a poor leader leads, the people despise him. But when a great leader leads, the people say, ‘we did that ourselves’.’’

Do extroverts make better leaders than introverts?

Highly charismatic people tend to be more extroverted. However, the eleven CEOs identified by Collins’ research were largely introverted, which breaks another myth about extroverts being better leaders than introverts. On the world stage, many iconic leaders were introverted, like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Let’s take one example of a highly charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler.

He led his population, but was he a leader? Any meaningful definition of “leader” must be about taking followers to a better place. On this measure alone, Hitler failed miserably as a leader as he led Germany to utter annihilation. He is rightfully considered as “bad” universally.

So, charismatic “leaders” are more able to lead people to catastrophe!

In many ways, it is harder to be an effective leader if charismatic, or to be precise, it is harder to be naturally charismatic and still be an effective leader.

The same could be said about extroversion because leadership is about listening. Telling is more about management.

Recent research has shown that very charismatic people are able to turn off listeners’ logical thinking and so make them more susceptible to suggestions in the same way as a hypnotist does.
A waste of time and money?

I am sure you agree that we all have room to improve our leadership and, if leaders were born with great charisma, then that would be the end of it.

Research indicates the genetic component of leadership capability is, at most, about 20% and probably less. So the environmental/ experiential factor is at least four times as important as our genes when it comes to leadership capability.

There is a gender-based component to leadership. Recurring research indicates that, on average, women make better leaders than men. Some of this superiority is helped by the cultural role women play. It tends to help them to focus more on what matters when it comes to leadership: the relationship.

So, if leadership can be improved, how much does it cost and how effective is the training?
In recent research by McKinsey, American companies spend US$14 billion every year on leadership development initiatives, yet “…there is scarcely any evidence that all this spending…is producing better leaders.”

A Harvard University review estimated that corporations spend US$50 billion on leadership development globally. It concluded leaders are less effective, less ethical and less respected than ever before!

In general, current research shows there is no known universal set of traits or personality styles which predict a good or great leader. What distinguishes leaders is their ability to motivate themselves and others.

Leadership may be able to be developed, but it must be in the right way or else it is a waste of money and time! With so many leadership development courses out there, it can be hard to know which are good ones or which are just management ones. Our research gives one way. On a deeper understanding of leadership, it is plain that Jack Welch was a good business manager but poor example of business leader, so all you need to do is to ask the potential provider one simple question: “Does your program identify Jack Welch as a good leader?” There answer will tell you whether to proceed!

LEARNING: Ignore trying to improve your charisma, adopt a ‘serve to lead’ approach and listen more to your employees at all levels in the organisation. Be intentional about developing your leadership intelligence.

Mark Oliver is the world’s #1 authority on motivational leadership. For over 30 years, he has been sought after by senior executives responsible for driving the optimal performance of their teams.

In his book Motivational Leadership, Mark reveals the 10 myths leaders must debunk to avoid having a disengaged, dissatisfied or unproductive workforce.

To order your free copy (shipping also complimentary) of Motivational Leadership, visit


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