Leadership is Charismatic – Myths (part 4)

Many people buy into the idea that leadership must be charismatic. They equate a good leader with someone who enthralls others, who can whip-up feelings/emotions of a crowd and use their personality to get others to follow. In a scene from Lord of the Rings, the hero Aragorn lines up his army outside the bad-guy fortress and while riding his massive charger up and down the cavalry line, gives a speech that inspires them to do great deeds. Ah, we say, that’s leadership! If only we had horses…

The result of defining leadership as charisma in the United States is the election to political office of people who have amazing personalities but who lack the skill, understanding or wisdom necessary to address the challenges facing the country (insert name of politician here). This dumbs-down leadership to a communication skill or personality trait. Issues of power, coercion and ethics are simply unimportant to this definition. This is how Hitler, a spell-binding orator by all accounts, can be considered by some to be a great leader. Ughhh.

We find a different approach illustrated by a story from an article by Ron Heifetz in Richard Couto’s terrific book Reflections on Leadership

A particular Native American tribal band went from nearly 100 percent alcoholism to 95 percent sobriety. When asked how the change happened, the credit was given to Lois. Lois would hold an AA meeting in the lodge of her people. Every week she would set up chairs in a big circle. And every week for two hours, Lois sat alone. No one came. For three years she continued this practice with almost no attendance. When asked about it she said, “I wasn’t alone. I was there with spirits and ancestors; and one day our people will come.” After ten years the room was filled with people. 

That is leadership without position, without authority, without a group of followers. Lois’s life was lived everyday in the tribal context. People knew her and she knew them. She connected with the values of her people, modeled them and people were mobilized for real change.  No salesmanship, no oratory skills, no gimmicks, no charisma, just plain character and passion on display for everyone to see. A real leader builds a mutual relationship with others on the basis of shared values, just as Lois did. Anyone can be a leader. More should be.

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