Desperate for “blogspiration” this week, I did what any blogger would do—I looked around to see what everyone else was doing. I noticed in recent weeks that two of my colleagues were inspired to blog on the concept of transformational leadership—“What Is Transformational Leadership and How Effective are CEOs at Providing It?” and “You Were Born to Lead, but Do You Have the Courage to Transform?” They both did a great job of unpacking the complexities of a transformational leader; definitely check them out.
At the same time, I had a really engaging conversation with a client last week. He had recently read an article on the dark side of charismatic leaders. He shared what particularly stood out for him in the article, as well as the leaders of his past who completely fit the description of a charismatic leader and the inarguable darkness that went along with it. Intrigued, I later Googled “charismatic leader.” The pop-out definition at the top of the first page read: “Inspirational motivation is the second quality of transformational leaders and it is what charismatic leaders are noted for: their ability to inspire and motivate followers to perform at high levels, and to be committed to the organization or the cause.” (Read the full article here.)
Hmmmm. So if there is a dark side of charismatic leaders and charisma is a key characteristic of a transformational leader, then there is surely a dark side of transformational leaders. A lightbulb went off and a blog topic was born.
Traditionally, a transformational leader has been synonymous with a charismatic leader. After all, it’s that charisma that served as the see/touch/feel of a really good leader, right? The kind of man or woman who excited his or her followers with passion, ambition and exuberance. That ability to work a crowd into a froth by articulating such an exciting vision of the future that there was no question as to whether it made sense or was strategically sound.
The truth is, many leaders dubbed as charismatic are not really transformational at all. They’re just adept at doing the thinking for those who don’t have the energy or confidence to formulate a voice of their own. Or they’re those leaders who say it louder and more emphatically than anyone else, so they must know what they’re doing, right? Right?? No. Consider this excerpt from a Fast Company article: “Next time you find yourself admiring managers for their intense charm, confidence and ambition, remember you are probably looking at a future failure. The myth of the charismatic CEO is still alive despite recurrent attempts by academics and social commentators to debunk it. In any organization, industry and country, the higher you go in the managerial ladder or power hierarchy, the more mischievous, arrogant and psychopathic people are.”
Often times, the people who surround those charismatic leaders start trusting their instinct—that little voice inside wondering, “Is this guy (or gal) on the right track? Is there possibly a better way?” The scary part is that by the time they do, it’s too late and those dissenters are shown the door. Fit in or find a way out—that’s the mantra of the “dark” charismatic leader.
Lucky for you, we’ve done the hard work of defining a truly transformational leader. It’s one who balances charisma with collaboration, confidence with virtue, influence with transparency. A leader who doesn’t just inspire, but who looks in the mirror every day and is at peace with who’s staring back. I put together a short list of comparisons between a truly transformational leader and one who’s riding the tenuous wave of his/her charisma:
- A charismatic leader is looking to create followers. A transformational leader wants to create more leaders.
- A charismatic leader paints the picture of an ideal future that serves him or her individually. A transformational leader speaks to the greater good of the organization and focuses on relevance for each person in the room.
- A charismatic leader doesn’t like being questioned. A transformational leader invites inquiry and welcomes input.
- A charismatic leader says, “Listen to me!” A transformational leader says, “I’m listening to you.”
- Charismatic leaders are so confident they have to tell you they’re awesome. Transformational leaders are confident but humble and those around them don’t need reminders of their greatness.
That list may serve as a gut check for you. Recognize anyone? Do you yourself lean toward charismatic? Do you have what it takes to be transformational? On the flip side, you may find yourself nodding emphatically—the descriptions ringing true of a tyrant leader to whom you happen to report. Either way, it’s a conversation we can continue face-to-face or through social media. Are you a former charismatic leader who found your way to the skills and characteristics of a truly transformational leader? What paved the way for your transformation and what difference has it made? For others—what are/were your survival techniques for dealing with a “charismatic leader”? What worked and when did you know it was time to throw in the towel? I truly welcome your comments and feedback!