Charismatic vs. institutional leadership

Apr 08, 2019

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“It’s a debate that’s been ongoing for years in our industry, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Good to Great, an academic study of huge, publicly-traded corporations and other organizations.”

When it comes to leadership of an AEC firm, which is better – charismatic leadership (we’ll call that personality-dependent), or institutional (we’ll call that not personality-dependent)? It’s a debate that’s been ongoing for years in our industry, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Good to Great, an academic study of huge, publicly-traded corporations and other organizations published in the ‘90s.

I think this book – and the many of those who read it and then applied its principles to their AEC firm with what I would call almost a “religious ferocity” – may have done a lot of harm to their companies, particularly when it comes to leadership selection, style, and training. Anyone who has ever read The Zweig Letter or heard me speak at an event or seminar knows that I have been and remain critical of the book. The organizations the research was based on (some are now out of business/gone!) are not at all similar to most AEC firms (much larger with many more resources!). And the lessons learned about what the author calls “Level 5” leadership don’t apply.

Yes – I do understand how having a leader with Level 5 leadership style (not charismatic, logic-based, institutional, non-ego-driven) can create a situation that makes leadership transition very simple. Since the leader isn’t charismatic it is easy to find another leader who isn’t charismatic. So that’s nice. But does that mean it is an effective style to have in a professional services firm that has to consistently sell and deliver projects to clients in a super-competitive market and recruit highly sought-after talent every day in spite of a huge industry-wide labor shortage? I don’t think so. And that is the situation we’re in.

Like it or not, leaders in THIS business have to be able to sell. Not only do they have to sell services to clients, they have to sell people on joining (and staying) with the firm. That takes charisma. Is charisma in shorter supply than technical/academic/institutional knowledge? Yes. And will successors (assuming we want organizational continuity) have the same type of charisma and do things the same way as their predecessors? Probably not. Does that create transition challenges for the firm? Yes. Is there an easy way around it? No.

Either way, the solution to the leadership challenges in our firms probably doesn’t lie in learning how “great” organizations like Circuit City and Fannie Mae did things in the ‘90s. More likely, it lies in getting the people we have, and those we will have, into the right roles as quickly as possible, providing them with training, support, and mentoring, and keeping an eye on the situation so we can make changes when mis-assignments become evident.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.