“Slow” Charismatic Leadership

June 11, 2011

“Slow” Charismatic Leadership

  How much does charisma affect leadership reputation today? It seems to be an age old debate. Too much? Too little? Just about right? When we asked this question years ago in my research on how to build an enduring and long-lasting CEO reputation, we learned that it is was important —  better to have than not have.  Charismatic leadership is not what you say but how you say it.  It’s not just what leaders communicate that makes them charismatic; it’s what they elicit from others. I think I read this somewhere and it stuck in my mind.
Among the new breed of CEOs today, a quieter charisma is now more important. It is not about CEO celebrity but building CEO credibility. Maybe we should call it “slow charisma.” Credibility or authenticity coupled with charisma can be electric.  When you see it, you know it. However, it is not all there is to leadership. Leadership also includes sound judgment, ethical conduct, the ability to listen and serve others. Lets not kid ourselves.

The Economist just wrote an article about what we can learn from Lady Gaga and Mother Teresa about leadership. Apparently there is a lot to learn.  The article infers that brilliant and flawless communications helps enormously, particularly with these two charismatic (in their own way) women.  Here is an excerpt.

Mother Teresa was a “PR machine” who, whether talking to a dying leper or a rich donor, “always left her imprint by communicating in a language the other person understood”. Lady Gaga is “one of the first pop stars to have truly built her career through the internet and social media.  Lady Gaga has what Messrs Anderson, Kupp and Reckhenrich call “leadership projection” and a layman would call charisma. The authors think this is because she tells “three universal stories”. First, a personal story: who am I? (She stresses that she was the weird kid at school, but driven to be creative.) Second, a group narrative: who are we? (She calls her fans “my little monsters” and herself “Mama Monster”, and she communicates with them constantly via Facebook and Twitter.) And third, a collective mission: where are we going? (She promotes gay rights and celebrates self-expression; she tells her fans that together they can change the world.)

Lady Gaga has the “ability to build emotional commitment” in those she leads, says Mr Reckhenrich. This ability is increasingly valuable in today’s business world, he believes. In “The Fine Art of Success”, a book he and his co-authors released last year, they examine it at length. They are now working with Egon Zehnder, an executive-recruitment firm, to figure out how to identify whether candidates for top corporate jobs have the ability to “project leadership” the way Lady Gaga does.

Charisma can be critical when a leader has to deliver an important message, whether the individual has it or not. I think former President George W. Bush demonstrated charisma when he faced the nation after 9-11, both on television from the oval office and when visiting the site of the World Trade Towers site in New York City. All eyes were on him and he delivered, as required.  However, that charismatic leadership soon faded with the war in Iraq and debacle of Hurricane Katrina because the empathy, emotional connection and authenticity were AWOL.  Former President Clinton has it in spades. President Obama has it and especially when he puts it to good use.

In this day and age, it is not enough for CEOs to bark orders or to manage the bottom line only. Being able to deliver meaning and purpose along with a dose of slow charisma and empathetic communications is required. It is a tall order, I know.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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