Leadership: More than Just Charisma?

In a recent book (Accidental Leadership, published by The Liffey Press), I had an opportunity to delve into the topic of leadership. One of the key findings was that there is no universally accepted definition of leadership – no consensus on what exactly constitutes leadership behavior. I came up with another definition (“leadership is the ability to bring about positive change”) to add to the million+ labels that are already out there.

Fianna Gael: The recent leadership contest in FG provided a great example of this ‘confusion’ about what exactly constitutes leadership. Supporters of Enda Kenny were able to highlight his achievements in rebuilding the party, following the disastrous showing at the polls last time out. Using a consensus style, Enda had re-established the party as the likely successor to Fianna Fail (albeit, whether FF will have ‘lost the match’ through a serious of own goals is a moot point).

On the opposite side of the debate, those in the Richard Bruton camp highlighted their leaders seeming inability to ‘connect’ with the electorate – with the charge that ‘Enda Kenny is Fianna Fail’s greatest asset’. The views, strongly expressed, were sincerely held on both sides. So, how can these diametrically opposed views be explained? The dilemma lies in the fact that both sides defined leadership in very different ways.

Charisma Defined: The term ‘charisma’ is often used interchangeably with leadership. Think George W. Bush versus Bill Clinton and you begin to get some handle on it. Sometimes charisma is easier to define in the negative.  One time I asked a client to describe his boss and got the reply: “whatever the opposite of charisma is, he has loads of it”. My own view is that Enda certainly has demonstrated ‘leadership’ (i.e. the ability to bring about positive change) but lacks strong charisma in the sense of having great public speaking/media connect skills.   Generally, these public skills tend to be more highly valued (by the electorate) than the more low-key (but critically important) competencies around delivering real change. We can label this the ‘visibility factor’. While sometimes political parties highlight the fact that they have an ‘excellent team’, unfortunately, the electorate seems to place most focus on the person sitting at the top of the table.  Leadership, mistakenly in my view, gets confused with charisma.

Organization Implications: Many of us have less lofty aspirations than managing the country. We just want to manage our own organizations. Are there lessons from the recent history in FG, which might help in this? I think that there are at least 3 useful lessons here.

  1. Be Courageous: While you might argue about the timing of the leadership challenge, you cannot deny the courage that underpinned it.  Are there issues in your organization that the ‘dogs on the street’ know about but are never discussed in the boardroom? (typically because they are somehow ‘socially awkward’).
  2. Clever Processes: In most organizations there is a range of mechanisms to help diffuse conflict. If every internal argument became a ‘fight to the death’, we would have to close the whole country down!  The political parties could learn from the problem-solving procedures in place in most organizations and move away from the personal gladiatorial contests so beloved by the media.
  3. Succession Planning: Changing the ‘lead horse’ is always a high profile exercise, (particularly for organizations dependant on a popular vote).  Yet, commercial and not-for-profit organizations face the same leadership conundrum all the time. Over the last number of years a range of ‘tools’ – under the general term ‘succession planning’- have evolved to allow leadership transitions to be made in a smoother and more thoughtful way.

At the time of writing Enda Kenny has ‘won’ the leadership contest – albeit most neutral observers believe that the FG party has ‘lost’ and will take some time to recover.  Politics aside, a key part of the role of those charged with organization effectiveness is to develop problem-solving mechanisms that avoid the personal trauma recent FG events highlight.  Part of this is to fundamentally understand what leadership is and what leaders are expected to deliver. In managing organizations, sometimes the quickest way to move forward is to slow things down.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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