Tuesday, September 4, 2007

From Charisma to Consensus: Are You a Good Leader?


At the turn of the last century and on the heels of the vacillating leadership of Emperor Wilhelm II, the political and social theorist Max Weber forecast that if a “charismatic leader” didn’t emerge in his industrialized Germany “not summer’s bloom [would] lie ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.” Well, he got more than he bargained for. From the chaos of War World I, emerged one of history’s most charismatic leaders: Adolf Hitler (watch what you wish for!). Before Hitler’s dictatorship, the Germans—indeed, the world—yearned for strong leadership; after Hitler they dreaded it. Scholars have long considered charisma, intelligence and a dominating character to be the key to effective leadership. Academics postulated that good leaders used their inborn talents to influence their followers by injecting them with enthusiasm and willpower, otherwise lacking; that a good leader had sufficient character and will to triumph over whatever reality they confronted by exercising their authority over others.

Stephen D. Reicher, Alexander Halsam and Michael J. Platow, in an article in Scientific American: Mind (Aug/Sept, 2007), discuss an emerging notion of leadership, one not of charisma but of consensus. In the new model, a good leader works to understand the values and opinions of his/her followers, rather than assuming absolute authority. In this model, good leadership depends on constituent cooperation and support. In fact, say Reicher et al., “it suggests that to gain credibility among followers, leaders must try to position themselves among the group rather than above it.” Therefore, no fixed set of personality traits can assure good leadership because the most desirable traits depend on the nature of the group being led, say Reicher et al. Bernard Bass of Binghamton University showed that leaders are most effective when they can induce followers to see themselves as group members and to see the group’s interest as their own interest.

According to historian Tim Blanning of the University of Cambridge, the quality of leadership evolved naturally with how the general populace saw themselves positioned in society. As a national identity emerged, European monarchs, who ruled as autocrats (using power to control people; the last Emperor Wilhelm II being a prime example) were forced to rule as patriots embodying a shared national identity. Monarchs who misunderstood or ignored the shift were ousted from rule (Wilhelm II of Germany) or beheaded outright by an angry mob (e.g., Louix XVI of France).

“Leaders are most effective when they can induce followers to see the group’s interest as their own interest,” say Reicher et al. The best leaders are prototypical of the group; that is, they not only seem to belong to a group, but they also exemplify what makes that group distinctive and superior to rival groups. This counters the notion that leadership requires a particular set of personality traits or that leaders need to behave in a fixed way, continue Reicher et al. “The most desirable traits and actions have to fit with the culture of the group being led and thus vary from group to group.” Anything that sets a leader apart from his/her group can compromise his/her effectiveness. A credible and ultimately influential leader uses the same language, respects their followers and listens to them; say Reicher et al., “leaders and followers bound by a shared identity and by the quest to use that identity as a blueprint for action.”
So, who do you think is a good leader?





Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

11 comments:

Erik said...

About 2500 years ago, Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching put it this way:

The existence of the leader who is wise
is barely known to those he leads.
He acts without unnecessary speech,
so that the people say,
"It happened of its own accord".


My latest idea for a book is based on the life of Roman Emperor Vespasian, who also seemed to understand this. The concepts required to run a Democratic Republic appear to have been understood in a vein similar to your post a very long time ago.

What makes a good leader? I happen to think it comes down to an eloquent and inspirational restatement of the obvious. Churchill provides many examples, such as "Never has so much been owed by so many to so few", i.e., "Man, them Spitfires saved our butts!".

Telling people what they know they need to hear in a way that moves their heart and arm and brain seems to be the trick, IMHO.

sfgirl said...

Very well put, Erik. The article in the Scientific American spoke of this too...language is a very important component in successful leadership. And, yes, I'd agree that Churchill was a good leader (for his time and his people, that is)...

SQT said...

Yep, getting people to do the right thing while thinking it's their own idea is the sign of a great leader.

Charisma is such an interesting topic too. I mean, a sociopath can (and too often they are) be charismatic. Having worked in the entertainment industry I would argue that any multi-million dollar industry is probably populated with a lot of charismatic sociopaths. Politics included.

sfgirl said...

Interesting connection, SQT. I'd say most of the charismatic political leaders we've known are sociopaths...Which is interesting considering what a sociopath is and how they function in society.

Nuvein Foundation said...

Magic Johnson is well-known for his team leadership back in the days. He was skilled enough to be the hero more often than not, but the Lakers thrived because Magic was able to make his team members act in unison.

sfgirl said...

Great example!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

We can all be 'leaders', Nina, but it's the sort we turn out to be that counts. Hitler and Churchill were both, yet they were very different.

sfgirl said...

Well said, Jean-Luc. I often think that a group invariably gets the leader they deserve...says a lot about our various countries then and now...

sfgirl said...

p.s. to my comment. You might judge me harsh in saying that, but what I meant by it is that we invariably usher in that which we require (or think we require) at the time. A leader can not lead a people who do not give him leave to. Hitler and Churchill, and Bush, for that matter, were all men "of the people", representing their people's hopes and desires...some leaders just took it too far...

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