Leadership: Charisma or Competence?


In the last few years there has been a growing interest in leadership and leadership theory –  in the wake of the appearance of political leaders whose election seems to be something of an anomaly.

For instance, Donald Trump is widely regarded as an incompetent (possibly certifiable) loose cannon and the United Kingdom’s Theresa May as a charmless administrator who has suddenly and by accident, found herself in the top job as British Prime Minister.

What Trump and May do have in common, however, is that they are widely regarded as being a perfect example of the Peter Principle. That is to say, they both appear to have been promoted to way beyond their level of incompetence.

But are we judging them too harshly and is our thinking based on the generally accepted but old-fashioned traditional model of the leader as a characterful, outgoing, charismatic ‘general’ who relies on force-of-personality and sublimely supernal oratory to attract and maintain his or her following…..and oh, yes…….there is often talk of ‘a vision’……..and even that is not quite accurate…..as it is the ability to COMMUNICATE a vision – whether true or bogus which is important.

I have spent many years coaching leaders and even I despair at the apparent shortcomings of the modern day ‘leader’ who has become quieter, far less flamboyant and very often with the wit and cloying personality of a moribund tax accountant.

Let’s have a look at the evolution of leadership – and I’m fully aware that every year, new models of leadership, usually based on previous models of leadership are published by both management scientists and behavioural psychologists in order to attempt to again explain leadership but more often, to sell books.

 Over the years there have been many theories as to what exactly leadership is or what it is supposed to be but in the final analysis, leadership, in its simplest form is best defined as The ability of an individual to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute towards accomplishing a mission.’

That definition has evolved from the original theories which had everything to do with authority. It evolved from the old military model of leadership in which it was believed for a very long time that you could not lead without authority.

From that developed the concept of situational leadership where results were obtained by adapting the use of authority for any given situation.

Many companies still use the old model with the CEO (general) being the solitary commander or leader who delegates duty to the next tier of management – and so on….. until right at the bottom of the pile you have the lowest grade, who supposedly is not able to exercise any sort of authority or leadership. Exactly the equivalent of a private in the army.

In the last 20 years there has been a move away from authority and new models of leadership have been developed based on knowledge rather than rank or authority.

The fact that knowledge is the driving force in leadership nowadays is easily explained, because if an individual is a specialist say in computing, as far as his CEO is concerned, that individual is a leader in his field – and he can also be a follower and a leader.

Specialist knowledge can therefore make an individual a leader in one subject and a follower in another.

If you look at the definition of leadership above, you may be tempted to conclude that ANYONE can be a leader…..or can they?

In the new technological industries, thought-leaders and Nerd-rule are all very well but in politics we still like a bit of charisma.

In the United Kingdom, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, just like Gordon Brown before her, has an analytical personality.

What does that mean?

It means that decisions are delayed ‘…. until I have ALL the information to hand’. In other words, analyticals can find themselves NEVER making decisions and unfortunately for them (if they are a politician) they enjoy another handicap in that they are not usually ‘people-oriented’. They radiate a certain coldness….although when they find themselves in a position of authority, they do tend to imagine that they will suddenly be able to relate to people and often make the appropriate noises but without any real conviction.

At the other end of the scale is the often-flawed ‘Expressive Charismatic’.

The Expressive really does like people and is able to tap into their emotions without really trying.

These types are able to express NOT what they THINK but what they FEEL.

In politics, an Expressive nature is by far the biggest asset a politician can possess.

Hence the election of Trump over Clinton….which was the biggest triumph of perceived charisma over perceived competence.

Here in the United Kingdom, we continue to gravitate towards leaders who appear safe, grey and competent. Then we remove them and in spite of secretly yearning for an exciting charismatic Expressive leader, we always settle for yet another grey shade of second-best.


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