Thursday 20 August 2015

We need charisma?

The debate around leadership at the Kids Company has revolved around charismatic leadership and whether this is enough.  As I said on the Today programme when the story broke charisma is good and indeed many of our great charity leader are both charismatic and  passionate, but when it is not coupled with sound administration and governance it can be disastrous.

Charisma is one of those things that we are supposed to fall for and admire.  God-given grace and charm is magical, not to be sniffed at.  Or is it?

I was fascinated to see that the dear old BBC Radio 4 is about to embark on a series about it in many walks of life, ranging from St Paul to Sarah Bernhardt and into the 21st century.  And I thought I'd reproduce the blurb from the BBC website to provoke thought on this. Franc one Stock writes,

 "Charisma is an external force of nature: confidence, charm, power, "quick-thinkingness", combined with physical impressiveness.
The more I thought about it, the more dangerous the whole concept became.  Beware of charisma, I say.  It will lead you into trouble.  I wracked my brains and in fact only a few business candidates come to mind.
For example, though they might like to think that they are - accountants are not charismatic, though they now often rise to the top of large organisations. Neither are bankers, though they may wield great power for a time.
Charisma is about more than power. It's about influence."

Corporate charisma:

For example, Henry Ford is probably the most striking example of what must be corporate charisma.  Farm boy, suspicious of banks all his life, opportunist who created the production line (out of existing manufacturing techniques) because there were no skilled engineers to be hired in Detroit (they were all making railway wagons).
Because he had to take unskilled immigrants with little English he broke work down into small repeatable tasks on a moving line.  He reduced work to monotonous repetition, but he paid well for it.
Fordist mass-production and the production line became so influential that they rapidly became the way of doing things in manufacturing, not just of cars but of almost everything else. 
Big and hugely influential maybe, but was this charismatic? I think it was.  Henry Ford used to go "camping" with his friends Edison and Firestone in a convoy of tent trucks.  The press would follow and record their fireside chats.  Edison had an ear trumpet.  Trumped up charisma, but a pretty big impact on the way many of us still work. 
Business charisma often coincides with a wave of technology change, which the charismatic leader rides like a surfer.  Ford was a part of the great automotive disruption of the early 20th Century.
Charisma has a lot to do with how the American media portray their business leaders.  Getting rich quick is only half the story.  Business leaders need to be "awesome" as well, and probably short-tempered.

Jack Welch was charismatic during his long reign as a chairman championing shareholder value at General Electric.  But his reputation shrank almost as soon as he was out of office.
Like politicians (as Enoch Powell nearly said) the careers of most of those admired as "charismatics" end in failure.

Larger than life:

One charismatic business person of whom that was not true was the late Steve Jobs of Apple.  He was, I'll admit from my only encounter with him, utterly charismatic in how he behaved and what he achieved.

Jobs upended personal computing, the music industry, animated cartoons, and retailing.  But he was impatient and irritable, not nice.  Maybe that goes with the aura.

Francine Stock has zeroed in on one of the cornflake kings, W K Kellogg, who made a fortune out of his brother's cereal invention, which was launched out of his clinic in Battle Creek, Wyoming.

But where are the British charismatics? Fry, Rowntree, Cadbury - were those self-effacing Quakers charismatic? The question is naturally self-contradictory.

One genuine candidate is John Spedan Lewis who gave the John Lewis company away to the workforce and then sat at home writing awkward had-to-be-answered letters to the partnership's weekly newspaper, the Gazette, for the rest of his life.  A forceful man, a forceful idea.  No-one else I can think of in Britain gets near.

And apart from Steve Jobs, the only other candidates I have met were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, superbly charismatic together as only movie stars can be.  They bent the air when you looked at them, especially her.

But do we need charismatic leadership? The media do: charisma makes good stories, larger-than-life people behaving quite unlike the rest of us.

The force-field of charisma and its impact on others is usually accompanied by huge self belief. Several of the American billionaires are convinced they will find a way of living forever, for example.
Falls from grace.

Charisma breeds a dangerous deference in underlings. It leads to diaries so packed there is no time for reflection, and no need for it either.  Self-confidence is fine for movie stars, but in the business world it stops bosses from being challenged, and from realising that their big ideas are mostly fleeting, insubstantial and troublesome.

A bad plan produced by someone temporarily regarded as charismatic looks good at the time, but when the wind changes (or the economy stumbles) it often turns to ashes.  And British business is scarred with repeated stories of seemingly just-for-a-moment charismatic leaders who rapidly fell from grace, and took their companies with them.

One is tempted to say: "happy the land that has no heroes." 

I'm not sure I buy all this but I shall be listening out!

Charisma: Pinning Down the Butterfly is a two-week series presented by Francine Stock starting on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 24 August at 13.45. 

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