Editorial: A look at charismatic leaders

Jan 14, 2015

Despite what the pundits say, Mark Zweig believes that magnetic leaders aren’t such a bad thing.

"Charisma” – some people have it and some don’t. It has been defined as a special charm or appeal that causes people to feel attracted and excited by someone (such as a politician); a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (such as a political leader); a special magnetic charm or appeal. There’s a shortage of charisma in the A/E/P and environmental consulting industry. Many of those who go into professions like these do so because of their interest in the work itself – not because of an interest in business, or leadership, or in building some great enterprise. Yet, when you do run into those rare charismatic leaders in firms in this business you will also often see they’re great marketers and sellers, running tremendously successful firms. I see charisma as a positive trait – one we need to cultivate. “Good to Great” followers (in many cases, zealots – sorry!) don’t necessarily see charisma as a good thing. In fact, charisma is not on Jim Collins’ list of requirements to be what he termed a “level 5 leader” (the highest level of leadership one can attain, in Collins’ view). In any case, Collins believes there are some major differences between a level 4 leader and a level 5 leader. Collins says a level 5 leader is highly driven for the success of his company. He wants his company to succeed no matter who is leading it as CEO. On the other hand, Collins thinks level 4 leaders don’t care so much about what happens to the company once they are gone. They get high performance out of the company during his or her reign, but (supposedly) aren’t so concerned about what comes after. The premise is that level 4 leaders care more about their own “greatness” than that of the company. One of my problems with oft-rabid preachers of Collins’ gospel is that all his research involved mega-organizations – be they either publicly traded multi-billion dollar companies or other huge organizations – so who is to say this all applies to mostly smaller- and mid-sized or even larger privately held professional service firms? If you poke around on the Internet on this subject (I find myself doing this sort of thing occasionally), you will find all kinds of articles, blog posts, etc., from people who actually stake out the territory that charisma is a bad thing for firm leaders to have. That’s ludicrous. Steve Jobs (Apple) and Elon Musk (Tesla) have been cited as examples by a number of authors and management and leadership “experts” of (bad?) charismatic leaders. Wow. Apple is one of if not the single most valuable technology company in the world and Tesla is the only successful new car company (much less electric car company) in about 100 years. So now we have people who have done nothing in the way of building companies themselves criticizing some of the greatest company-builders in modern history because they aren’t what an academic (Jim Collins) considers a level 5 leader. That’s just plain bizarre! The charisma critics will claim that in the long term companies run by charismatic leaders have problems. There certainly are examples of imploding charismatic leaders such as Paula Dean, Leona Helmsley or Martha Stewart, or companies melting down post-charismatic leader, such as Chrysler after Lee Iacocca. But overall, my belief is the charismatic leaders have done far more good than damage. On top of that, who is to talk about long term? Most companies morph, merge and change so quickly these days it is hard to talk about long term. One thing is for sure, you won’t have a long term if you don’t survive the short term. If I were you, I’d be looking for charismatic leaders at all levels in the firm. And I would also be supportive of the ones you already have – with one caveat that you don’t let their pay, perks, and egos get too far out of control!
This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1087, originally published 1/19/2015. Copyright© 2015, Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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.