Charismatic Leaders

Oct 20, 1997

One of my associates and I recently went to Idaho to visit a new consulting client— Power Engineers, Inc. (Hailey, ID). Without question, one of the high points of our trip was meeting their CEO (even though he goes by the title of “general manager”), a fellow by the name of Pete Van Der Meulen. This handlebar-mustachioed, 53-year-old cowboy started the company about 20 years ago and built it into one of the leading companies of its type serving the power and telecommunications industries. He moved to the Hailey/Sun Valley area as a young man, and he liked it so he stayed. Over the years, the company made 16 acquisitions, including several in foreign countries. Today, in addition to still having a significant stake in his firm, he also owns a 3,000-acre horse and cattle ranch located seven minutes from his office. He works out of a tiny cubicle, and lives in a modest home in town. His personal transportation is a well-worn Chevy S10 4-wheel drive pick-up. A less pretentious guy you’d never meet. But a more charismatic leader you’d be hard pressed to find. Meeting Pete Van Der Meulen got me thinking about charismatic leaders and what kind of impact they can have on their companies. Here are my thoughts: Charismatic leaders look the part. Whether it’s the way they dress, the props they use, their physical size, or just the way they carry themselves, these people look like you expect leaders to look. It’s been said that even though he was only 5’9”, Gen. Douglas MacArthur seemed 7-feet tall when he entered a room because he dominated it so effectively. And by the way, this “leadership look” is not restricted to men. Diane Creel, chairwoman of TYCO International (Exeter, NH) subsidiary environmental consulting firm EARTH TECH (Long Beach, CA) has this same presence. Charismatic leaders can lead without having the absolute power that comes from a controlling ownership interest. I have had it verbalized to me on more than one occasion by the charismatic leader of an A/E/P or environmental firm— they don’t need to own the majority of stock in their firms to rule. They do it based on their own charisma and proven track record of leading a successful organization. In fact, some of the strongest leaders in this industry own small amounts of stock in their companies. The fact that they don’t have the ownership hammer forces them to be better leaders! Charismatic leaders have excellent verbal skills. Without exception, every charismatic leader I have encountered can speak well to a crowd. To be a charismatic leader, it’s essential that you can paint a vision of the promised land and then describe what it will take to get there. These people get excited when they speak, they vary the rate and pitch of their voices, and they get their point across forcefully. No one has any doubt where they are coming from or what course the firm is on. Charismatic leaders are smart. A lot of these people didn’t necessarily start with all the advantages. Some started as drafters, or secretaries, or junior-level bean counters. But whatever their education and experience, one thing charismatic leaders have in common is their intelligence. They learn quickly. They are quick studies of character. They are observant. They can cut through the smoke to get to what’s really important. They have a wide range of general information. They have many interests. One problem organizations have with their charismatic leaders, however, is that these people get bored easily because of their intelligence. That may lead them to take an unnecessary risk. Or, it could result in the leader deciding to get out of the organization too early, before the organization is ready to stand on its own. Charismatic leaders have a hard time replacing themselves. One thing I always point out to charismatic leaders (and their second tier) is that it’s unrealistic to think that someone, either inside or outside the company, will be able to replace them fully. It won’t be one person who replaces a charismatic leader— it may be one person who formally assumes their title when they move on or out, but it will take a number of people to fill all the things they do, especially the intangible things. I’m talking about being a head cheerleader, painting and selling the vision, showing personal care for every employee, and being the number one business development person for the company. It simply never happens that one person has all of these qualities— especially when following a strong, charismatic leader. Usually they emerge when following a weaker leader— often it’s the third generation, not the second, if the first generation leader was charismatic. Charismatic leaders may make visible sacrifices to garner the support of their troops. Whether it’s the old vehicle, the small cubicle, the low-key title, or the office without a window, charismatic leaders are very tuned in to the power of symbolic gestures when it comes to getting everyone else to make sacrifices for the organization. But don’t get me wrong— these leaders will certainly be well compensated in the end— they just understand the power of symbolism. Charismatic leaders are vulnerable. If a charismatic leader loses his charisma, he’s dead. A good example might be Marv Albert or Jimmy Swaggart. Just the hint of a scandal calls their character into question and they suddenly look like caricatures of leaders. The same thing can happen in our industry if a charismatic leader is caught cheating on his expense report, or having an affair with the office clerk. The moral and ethical standard of behavior that has to be upheld for a charismatic leader is higher than for everyone else. One slip and they can lose it all. Originally published 10/20/1997

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