Margaret Heffernan on the Dangers of Charismatic Leadership

I’ve just discovered Margaret Heffernan’s insightful summaries about organizational leadership, innovation and business practices. This article about the dangers of charismatic leadership punctures a few myths about our Western culture’s fascination with persuasive risk-takers. Visionaries can be wonderful — unless they become narcissistic and forget the purpose of leadership. She notes what a lot of us leadership folks are saying, that the best leaders are listeners. I’ve also linked to the Sloan/MIT Article she summarizes — some good research and thinking about “intelligent conservatism” that can be an antidote for the hyper-individualism that hampers our organizational effectiveness.
Check this out!

Why you should avoid charismatic leaders

by Margaret Heffernan, for CBS Moneywatch, March 21, 2013

(MoneyWatch) I’ve written about the perils of narcissistic leaders. They’re dangerous because they want the applause that ensues after big dramatic gestures and that inclines them to heroic strategies that make their companies far more volatile. But what about charismatic leaders — doesn’t every company want to find its own Steve Jobs?

No, at least not according to Christian Stadler, writing in MIT’s Sloan management review. I like Stadler’s work because, as you might expect of a European, his sense of history is more than a week long and he’s interested in the patterns and lessons it can offer. Surveying 100 years of European business leaders, he found that leaders of high-performing companies were not charismatic — at least not as charismatic as the leaders of companies that did worse. He argues that the problem with charisma is that you can persuade just about anyone to do anything — even when it’s crazy.

Poster child for the perils of charisma is Michael Frenzel, Chief Executive of TUI AG, Europe’s largest travel agency. When he got the top job, the company main business lay in commodities and steel. But this was too boring for Frenzel who divested himself of those “old economy” businesses and instead went pell-mell into the travel business. The timing was wrong, the strategy was flawed and in 15 years, TUI shares lost almost 60 percent of their value.

This reminds me of Jean Marie Messier, known to many of his erstwhile followers as J6M — the 6 Ms standing for Marie Messier Moi Meme Maitre du Monde, or Messier myself master of the universe. His brilliant idea was to turn his water company into an global multimedia business, something he knew nothing about. But he had the charisma to persuade his board, his shareholders and the French government that his was visionary leadership — until the day it wasn’t.

How do you spot a charismatic leader? Most people will say you know them when you see them but if in doubt, go looking for award winners or the CEOs most frequently decorating the covers of magazines. According to Stadler, six out of the last 18 Chief Executives who won the title “Manager of the Year” in Germany presided over huge strategic blunders. By contrast, he says, you can spot the “intelligent conservatives” who are the better bet. They’re most likely to be insiders who know the company from top to bottom. And in a meeting, they always stand out because they’re the ones doing all the listening.

Stadler and his co-writer Davis Dyer write: “Listening takes time, and yet it ensures that an organization not only is on board but also engages everyone in the process — producing more solid results in the long run and leading to less reckless strategic shifts. It also helps leaders to gain an understanding of new lines of business as they develop. At Glaxo, for example, top executives displayed a keen interest in learning from their scientists when the company started the transition from being a producer of milk powder to becoming a drug company in the 1920s. At Lafarge, a manufacturer of building materials based in France, we were able to document the determination of managers to learn from their staff as early as 1833. Léon Pavin de Lafarge, the second leader of the young corporation, for example, spent considerable time at the plant to learn more about production from the workers, a practice that was picked up by some of his successors.” Read their whole article here…

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: