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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

BLG Leadership Insights Managerial Competence

Leading a Can-Do Culture: The Management Challenge of the Day

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks astutely points out that the challenge for GM is cultural, and not simply structural or financial. He notes:

On Jan. 21, 1988, a General Motors executive named Elmer Johnson wrote a brave and prophetic memo. Its main point was contained in this sentence: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute.”

On Jan. 26, 2009, Rob Kleinbaum, a former G.M. employee and consultant, wrote his own memo. Kleinbaum’s argument was eerily similar: “It is apparent that unless G.M.’s culture is fundamentally changed, especially in North America, its true heart, G.M. will likely be back at the public trough again and again.”

In the final analysis, the challenge of leadership for our times is creating if not refocusing on our notion that we can accomplish things.  Leaders have to take the responsibility for communal and organizational culture.  Before anything else, they have to focus on the sense that we’ve regained our sense of cultural momentum, that we’ve overcome inertia and hesitation has been left behind.

Have you heard, “We have a can-do culture?” Or, “We have a culture that stays on top of things?” Sometimes momentum is a question of your ability to ingrain the culture of the group into the individual. In some organizations, you walk in and you immediately have the sense that they can run with the ball and go the distance. Such a culture is one of “drive.” Consider firefighters. Theirs is a culture full of tradition. They reinforce expected behavior through the stories of the heroic deeds of their brethren, by recounting pivotal events, important people and their actions. They tell and retell stories that subtly and not so subtly communicate how a firefighter is supposed to engage in that organization and that build a sense of belonging among its members. Firefighters take action and extraordinary risk because of their strong sense of mission.  As a result, their focused drive saves lives. The most effective leaders of firefighters are able to sustain momentum by using the firefighter culture to inspire and deliver outstanding commitment and superior performance.

Imagine two groups with comparable resources. One group shows results, while the other can’t seem to get anything done. They start a lot of projects, but they finish nothing. They don’t have the capacity to go the distance. Sure, they may listen to the same CEO give the same call to action. But when it comes to implementing an agenda or demonstrating superior results, even though the teams have similar talent, a similar organization, “the B team” somehow falls short. Their agenda goes unfulfilled. You’ve seen plenty of examples of this. The new product launch, which was so highly touted, turns into a money pit. The reorganization that was supposed to improve customer satisfaction results in customer confusion. The rollout of a performance management system gets stuck in meeting paralysis. The best-laid plans become some of the worst-laid eggs.

In many of these cases, the X factor is cultural momentum. Using value and purpose, the leader of the “A team” created a sense of belonging, commitment, and collaboration among the group’s members. People relate to others in the group. They relate to the group as a whole. In a real sense, they define themselves in relation to the group and/or the initiative. This is the foundation of cultural momentum that will get this team through adversity.