Charismatic Leadership – Minimising its risks

According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunis...

The dark side of charismatic leadership: Adolf Hitler. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charismatic leaders have always been seen as being in the limelight because of something special, pointing solely to the charisma that they exude or that is oozing from and emanating from them that sets them apart from the pack. It is this soft influential power that seems to position them to motivate members towards a vision and achieve efforts beyond the ordinary (Boal and Bryson, 1988; House and Howell 1992).

There are books upon books of such abilities that attempt to teach people how to be charismatic or how to attain charisma in that sense, and the question still remains largely whether it is something that is innate or can be attained in some way. One thing however remains clear – that such leadership is transformational to members as well as the organisation at large. It is able to hold members through tough times and can be the edge in riding out of storms, as they become the anchor point of the members. During Hitler’s time, he was seen as the one who gave the German people hope for a future and for a start, they did achieve it, but lost it also because of him.

While such leaders do achieve unusual results from the radical moves that they make, they are also judged by those results. In fact, there is considerable evidence in a positive correlation between leadership charisma and organisational results (Conger, Kanungo, and Menon, 2000).

Some of the problems however lie in the what scientists would refer to as the “dark side” of leadership, which in essence are problems that arise.

Firstly, the passing of the baton. Charismatic leadership typically has issues in moving ahead of the incumbency as such leaders with these attributes are rarer than others. The members may be enamoured by such leadership that they heap unrealistic expectations on the new leader.

Secondly, the risk and corollary uncertainty levels increase with radical moves and decisions from charismatic leaders.

Thirdly, such leadership may attempt to subvert the system and draw power to themselves by attracting credit to themselves, which is dangerous not just for the organisation, but for the members too (Jacobsen and House, 2001).

Fourthly, such leadership may end up become exploitative achieve the leader’s own ends, using his position as a means to achieve them. It becomes accentuated where narcissism and egocentrism are involved in a leader’s personality, which lead the leader to be unemphatic, easily provoked to jealousy, etc.

How do we minimise the risks of such leadership?

1. Establishing a framework to decentralise power and for accountability. Reduce the power in the centre as far as possible, not to a point of crippling decision making, but to be mindful of the level of protection needed from uncertainty.

2. Prepare the leader for transition by requiring a successor to be sought after as part of the leadership stint. This is an important safeguard for the organisation following the departure of the leader.

3. Ensure a good mix within the main leadership team supporting the leader. The last thing charismatic leadership should be left with are men who are brilliant and are flowing down the same stream of thought. There has to be a few who can play the devil’s advocate.


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