Charismatic Leadership: Much Ado About Nothing

Ed's Ink

Editor's Note: 

In a 1988 Wall Street Street Journal entitled Leadership: More Doing Than Dash, Peter F. Drucker demolished the notion that effective leadership is linked to charisma.

Jean Lipman-Blumen in The Drucker Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2010) penned a beautiful chapter entitled A Pox on Charisma. She provides provocative insights and thoughtful prescriptions about leadership in today's frightening world. 

Joseph Maciariello—considered by many the foremost expert on Drucker's teachings—provides an excellent synthesis of Drucker's thoughts relating to leadership and the job of the executive in his astonishing and much-praised books entitled A Year with Peter F. Drucker and Lost Art of Management. 

We highly recommend reading the above-mentioned materials. They deliver a powerful and timely message. 

Leadership Does Matter

Leadership is far from what most self-appointed leadership experts talk about on TV. It has little to do with “leadership qualities” and even less to do with “charisma. 

The essence of leadership is performance and results. Leadership is a means to an end. The crucial question is: To what end? Peter F. Drucker once wrote:

The three most charismatic leaders of the 20th century inflicted more suffering on the human race than almost any trio in history: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. What matters is not the leader's charisma. What matters is the leader's mission... 

Effective leadership does not depend on charisma. Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, and Harry Truman were singularly effective leaders, yet none possessed any more charisma than a dead mackerel…

Nor did Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor rebuilt West Germany after World War II. No less charismatic personality could be imagined than Abe Lincoln of Illinois, the raw-boned, uncouth backwoods-man of 1860… 

And there was amazingly little charisma to the bitter, defeated, almost broken Winston Churchill of the interwar years, what mattered was that he turned out in the end to have been right… 

Indeed, charisma does not by itself guarantee effectiveness as a leader. John F. Kennedy may have been the most charismatic person ever to occupy the White House. Yet few presidents got as little done. 

Searching for Leadership Traits

It is a safe assumption that no management consultant rivaled Drucker's longevity in the field. For seven decades he met innumerable leaders from business, church, military, academic, health, and countless other social organizations.

Drucker strongly believed things such as “leadership qualities” or a “leadership personality” were given more emphasis than they should be. Indeed, he felt effective leadership is not dependent upon charisma nor a set of personality traits.

In short, Drucker searched but failed to discover a uniform profile of successful leadership traits. His only conclusion? Effective leadership is work––hard work.  

Simply put, it is work to obtain economic performance and results. "And work, to yield results, has to be thought through and done with direction, method, and purpose." 

Drucker was dogmatic, however, in insisting on integrity as the one absolute trait of leadership. This characteristic might not lend itself to an easy definition, but its absence should disqualify a person for a management position.

In amplifying this point, he wrote: “Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says. It is the belief in something very old-fashioned, called ‘integrity.’" 

Good leaders, noted Drucker, accept the fact that they are ultimately responsible for the outcome. Harry Truman's folksy “the buck stops here” is an often-used definition of this requirement of leadership. 

But precisely because effective leaders hold themselves responsible for the mistakes of their associates and subordinates, they surround themselves with strong associates and subordinates. 

Said Drucker: “An effective leader knows, of course, there is a risk: able people tend to be ambitious… But he realizes that it is a much smaller risk than to be served by mediocrity.”

The Two Tasks of Effective Leadership

The foundation of effective leadership rests on two tasks––namely: (1) deciding what is to be done (for a nation, a business firm, or a social-service institution) and; (2) deciding how to do the job, organizing and controlling its execution, and measuring its results. 

Said Harvard's Ted Levitt: “No nation, institution, or utopian coddling can by denial or procrastination escape the necessity of these management tasks.” (Please read the articles in our section on The Drucker Perspective for a full understanding of what these tasks really involve.)

Charisma has nothing to do with carrying out these management tasks. Only by following the prescriptions and principles advocated by Drucker and many others can these tasks be successfully accomplished.

Let's Say It Again: “Charisma is No Substitute for Results”

Much blame for bad performance––in business, government, universities and colleges, and the like––is put on changing times, disruptive technologies, outdated policies, poor economic conditions, and numerous other factors.

But it is management's job to manage for the right results regardless of circumstance.

“The general rule must be laid down,” remarked Levitt, "that bad performance reflects the existence of bad management. That is especially true in the case of bad relative performance that remains relatively bad for two or more years.”

Some problems are, of course, unsolvable. In such cases, the only solution is abandonment of the unproductive and the obsolete. 

As Levitt said, “Failure to abandon is itself a failure of management: Management has not seen or understood the facts that face it… and has not faced them with prompt decisive action.”

Not understanding the facts usually equates with “ignorance is bliss.”

To be able to do something about the properly understood facts requires know-how and a disciplined management processes.

It takes years of self-development and, in many cases, formal training coupled with in-depth experience to make the right things happen. 

Perception, Understanding, and Learning

More specifically, not understanding the facts has more to do with the recipient of those facts. If the facts are not within the recipient's range of perception, then it is impossible for the recipient to comprehend what the facts mean.

Many believe the distinction between a good and not-good leader is not in the ability to perceive, but in the ability to learn, that is, in the ability to change one's mind and/or emotions on the basis of new experiences and new learning. 

Again, charisma has little or nothing to do with one's ability to learn. 

Perception = Knowledge + Experience

What determines perception? Answer: Knowledge and experience. People with different perceptions (i.e. knowledge and experience) see things differently. 

In short, what A argues has no pertinence or relevance to B's concerns and vice versa if they have different perceptions.

The only thing that will change B's mind is a change in perception. And that will come only when and if B becomes more knowledgeable and gains experience. 

A Drucker Statement Worth Memorizing

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker reminded us that “When a change in perception takes place, the facts do not change. Their meaning does.”

Not-good leaders are generally very good at explaining how things are better than they seem, and what things are being done to make them even better. Chances are they believe what they say.

But––and this is a very big but––it is quite likely that the meaning of the facts is simply beyond the range of the recipient's perception.  

More on Not-Good Leaders

More than 30 years ago, Levitt said, “It can be said with confidence and certainty that wherever the articulate and persuasive rationalizer for constantly or frequently poor performance regularly shows up, [the entity under discussion] will surely slow down, and go under.” 

Unfortunately, charisma sometimes helps the persuasive rationalizer “sell” his/her message. Levitt felt that this, in part, explains their tenure. 

Peter F. Drucker drilled to the heart of the matter when he said: 

Charisma becomes the undoing of leaders. It makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change.

This is what happened to Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, and it is a commonplace in the study of ancient history that only Alexander the Great's early death saved him from becoming an ineffectual failure.

And we couldn’t agree more!