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Charisma Can Die

Once in a while an event occurs that triggers a plethora of articles and an overwhelming amount of thoughts about a topic.  It should come as no surprise that the surgical elimination of Osama bin Laden has suddenly stimulated a rush of articles and op-eds about leadership. Indeed the entire event, when looked upon outside of it’s overblown dramaturgical frame, raises some wonderful points about different types of leadership.

The first issue is whether or not organizations can survive the demise of a charismatic leader. In this particular instance I have non-theoretical bias and hope that the answer is NO! I think we will all be much happier if in this instance if the empirical test fails. But beyond that what can we speculate?

Max Weber spoke about the transformation of charisma: The challenge of transferring charisma from one leader to another. For this transfer to occur there needs to be a development of ritual mythologies and legends that legitimize the continuation of the mission laid out by a charismatic leader. Obviously it’s too early to know if this core of cultural activity will emerge, but if it does it may be so diffused as to be ineffective. For charisma to succeed, to really be transferred, there needs to be a continued organizational structure that can take the mythology and transfer it into concrete organizational mission tactics.

In this particular instance the mythology may continue but it’s unlikely that a loose structure will ever be able build an organization without the continuous presence of a charismatic leader pushing the agenda. This of course means that the free world needs to assert continuous pressure to make sure that the organization’s structure and stability are never allowed to emerge. The way you make sure that the mythological head on the snake does not reattach itself to the body, is by making sure the body remains dismembered.

While the transference of charisma is one of the issues raised by this event, the other is one of our favorite themes: pragmatic leadership. In this instance President Obama’s capacity to keep his focus on the mission, to sustain the goals, to keep his team together, to maintain momentum and not drop the ball is one of the best examples in recent years of the capacity to get people on your side and keep them there. This balance of political competence and managerial competence is clearly what is necessary for execution. In many ways it is the exact opposite of the charismatic approach. It is grounded in the tradition of keeping your mouth shut and keeping your eyes on the ball. In that regard we draw a very simple but important lesson from this: execution is everything, execution demands a leader that can make sure his team can go the distance.

So what have we learned from this event? What are the leadership lessons?

  1. Don’t be overwhelmed by charisma
  2. If you want to get something done keep your mouth shut and focus on execution

photo: Orin Zebest



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