Joe’s Journal: On Charisma and Leadership

“Charisma is ‘hot’ today. There is an enormous amount of talk about it, and an enormous number of books are written on the charismatic leader. But, the desire for charisma is a political death wish. No century has seen more leaders with more charisma than the 20th century, and never have political leaders done greater damage than the four giant leaders of the 20th century: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. What matters is not charisma. What matters is whether the leader leads in the right direction or misleads. The constructive achievements of the 20th century were the work of completely uncharismatic people. The two military men who guided the Allies to victory in World War II were Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. Both were highly disciplined, highly competent and deadly dull. Perhaps the greatest cause for hope, for optimism is that to the new majority, the knowledge workers, the old politics make no sense at all. But proven competence does.”

– Peter F. Drucker

This was an important topic for Peter Drucker because of his extraordinarily negative experiences with charismatic leaders, who did what charismatic leaders are frequently prone to do — and that is to begin to believe that they’re infallible and that they know better than anybody else. This can and has lead to great harm.

StalinMussoliniHitler and Mao — especially Stalin, Hitler and Mao — were always on Drucker’s mind when he discussed the danger of charisma and when he wrote the article  “Beware Charisma” (See Chapter 8, The New Realities). The problem with charisma in leadership is not charisma itself. If leaders are properly motivated to lead — that is, according to the mission of their organization, and they take on their responsibilities, not as a matter of rank or privilege, but as a matter of work and responsibility – then a charismatic dimension to one’s personality helps. Charisma can be productive. But there’s always danger lurking if charisma is not balanced.

[EXPAND More]If you go to the other side, Drucker notes that some of the most effective leaders in history, like Dwight EisenhowerGeorge MarshallHarry Truman and Abraham Lincoln, were extraordinarily effective but were not known for their charisma. In the case of Truman, Drucker thought that he was about as charismatic as a dead mackerel. And Lincoln was an uncouth, raw-boned man from Kentucky. Drucker favored people for leadership who held socially productive missions; treated leadership as responsibility; and were able to lead effectively during turbulent times. He admired Winston Churchill who led England in World War II and who developed many able leaders.

Even good leaders with charisma face the danger of having success go to their heads. They get into situations where they tend to believe they’re infallible; they pile success upon success and think that they’re invincible. But, the best leaders serve the mission of their organization and do not seek their positions for purposes of power but for service. And they listen to others and take constructive criticism.

— Joe Maciariello