Organizational transformation, in some form or another, is an issue weighing heavy on the mind of almost every one of my clients these day. Some are concerned with creating buy-in across the organization, some are fretting about the need for transformation (spoiler alert: these days there is always a need to transform or face the fast track to irrelevance) and still others are troubled by a sense that current transformation efforts aren’t happening fast enough. One client stands out to me lately – he is struggling with an identity crisis of sorts. See, he is directly responsible for leading and driving transformation within his organization, but is struggling with the fact that he doesn’t see himself as a transformational leader. Recently he shared: “I’m an introvert! I’m so not charismatic and the very thought of leading all that transformation s*@t completely wears me out.” Turns out, his bias and assumption of what a transformational leader looks like, was getting in the way of his ability to identify as the type of leader who could drive change and successfully lead transformation. At that point, our conversation pivoted to his comment on charisma – we peeled back the layers of his beliefs about the need to be traditionally charismatic and charming to be a truly impactful leader.

Charismatic or Psychopathic?

The truth is, many leaders dubbed as charismatic are not 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.”

Characteristics of a Transformational 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 self-interest and charisma:

  1. A charismatic leader is looking to create followers. A transformational leader wants to create more leaders.
  2. 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.
  3. A charismatic leader doesn’t like being questioned. A transformational leader invites inquiry and welcomes input.
  4. A charismatic leader says, “Listen to me!” A transformational leader says, “I’m listening to you.”
  5. 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.


Look in the Mirror

This 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 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 welcome your comments and feedback!

You Worked Hard To Reach The Top

You Worked Hard To Reach The Top

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