The sociologist Max Weber realized long ago that one of the challenges of leadership is the transference of power. Weber knew that this was especially the case when you are forced to replace a charismatic leader. How does a visionary, an inspirational leader, a person driven by a sense of calling and purpose transfer their charismatic energy to the leadership that follows?
More often than not, the issue of charismatic transference emerges in startup organizations. Organizations led by entrepreneurial, paradigm breaking, charismatic revolutionaries may reach the pinnacle of success but the problem then becomes: how does the company keep it going if the leader chooses to go fly fishing, become a college professor or just decides the time has come to move on.
Having a charismatic leader seems like a great idea, especially during a start up period or during a time of crisis. Having such a luminary, such a solitary star in the sky makes it easier to navigate through both the good and the bad. But anything that shines so bright will inevitably burn out. Then you have a big problem to solve.
A current day example of the daunting task of charismatic transference is Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is Apple and Apple is Steve Jobs. That’s what we’ve been sold, and that’s what we choose to believe. This week Mr. Jobs announced that he will be taking another medical leave of absence, his third in the last six years. When the news first came out, shares in Apple fell 8% in overseas markets (due to the MLK holiday on Monday, US markets were closed). Of course the stock rebounded later in week thanks to Apple’s amazing earnings announcement, which included at profit increase of 78% ($6 billion) and record revenue of $26.7 billion. It’s pretty clear that even if Jobs were not to return, Apple would continue being a giant in the tech world, but for how long?
Apple and Jobs offer a look at both the upside and the downside of having a charismatic leader. More importantly, they highlight the near impossibility of having to replace one. There is no question that without Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple would have never reached the heights it has. The company itself has created fundamental shifts in the tech industry, if not the world, time and time again. Then again Jobs’ charisma has had a lot to do with how many of us respond like moths to a flame when he rolls out of a new iPod or iPhone.
So without Jobs, can Apple survive? The answer is a resounding, but qualified, yes. Things will hum along just fine as long as the next wave of leaders at Apple focus on one thing and one thing one: Execution. It’s clear that charisma has played a large role in their success far, but in reality it was Steve Jobs’ ability to get things done, to execute, that made Apple what it is today. His dedication, if not obsession, with high quality, forward thinking projects is legendary. His drive, his desire to succeed and his ability to get those around him to execute at levels that they never thought possible are what make Steve Jobs a titan of industry. To say the least, Jobs’ overwhelming charisma has certainly helped, but it alone cannot explain his or Apple’s success.
Tim Cook and the rest of Apple’s future leaders need to focus on not trying to out-charisma a cult hero like Jobs. It’s not going to happen. If they can just find a way to continue Jobs’ record of execution, they just might have a chance. It’s not going to be easy, but I can guarantee it will never happen if they choose to focus on charisma over execution.
Bottom line, if you have a charismatic leader and you’re facing a transference of power keep the following in mind:
-In the short term build on the plan laid out by the charismatic leader
-During the transference period make sure that concrete steps of execution are built on the charismatic vision
-Move agendas forward built on the charismatic vision but get beyond it
Simply put, change little, reinforce the vision, make sure you know how to execute on the vision and most importantly, respect the vision for a while but don’t be afraid to move beyond it when the time is right. Charismatic leadership, even when it slightly fades, can be a base for successfully moving forward.