Sunday, April 3, 2011

When Charisma Isn’t Enough

By Edward Brown

This Q & A session explores the shortcomings of charisma and its drawbacks.

Q: What are some of the things charisma cannot do?

A: Contrary to popular beliefs, charisma is not the cure for all things. For example, charisma cannot create competence when there is ineptitude. It tends not to be able to replicate itself. And It cannot sustain long lasting success without an ultimate goal or a specific vision.

Q: What is meant by the inability of charisma to replicate or copy itself?

A: The imagination, tenacity and focus within charismatic leaders are aligned, but tend not to be completely transferrable to another person. Secondly, followers of charismatic leaders are fulfilling an internal need within themselves that make creating disciples difficult. Again, the specialness of a charismatic leader leaves a void when his leadership becomes vacant, which is not easily filled through individuals with less charismatic proclivities.

Q: Could a person at least replicate the traits of the charismatic leader although he may not have a charismatic personality?

A: External manifestations like great oratorical skills, enhanced interpersonal communications and phenomenal execution are learnable. However, an overriding desire to compete and take on a missionary zeal requires the synchronization of insecurity, narcissism, imagination and commitment at a heightened level. Children can replicate the actions of their sports heroes, but the level of skill, tenacity and world class performance requires a different level of internal fortitude that imitation merely cannot produce.

Q: Why can’t charisma be sustained indefinitely?

A: The charismatic personality will always be charismatic. Often the initial need for charismatic leadership may change. The change may require less charisma, less innovation and more stability. Also, charisma is situational. There are certain ideal situations where charismatic leadership thrives and other situations where it is stagnant.

Q: What historical cases speak to the stagnation of charisma?

A: Two current political examples come to mind. In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi led a bloodless coup in 1969 that lasted until recently. Gadhafi was like a rock star during the 1980’s. The same existed for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution. They captured the attention of the world, but diminished as time passed. Well, Castro has diminished, but because Guevara was killed before he became irrelevant, the mythology around him still swirls. The frailty of charismatic leaders is not leaving the scene before they are ruled insignificant. Martin Luther King, Jr. suffered the same plight. His charisma had been usurped by SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and the Black Panthers. Had he not been assassinated, it is arguable whether his leadership would have taken on mythic proportions.

Q: So, only death can preserve the charismatic leader?

A: Death preserves the mythology at the height of his acclaim. However, a charismatic leader can groom disciples who represent his mission. A good example would be the founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. By having the likes of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan as his spokespersons, his charisma and mystery was preserved. In this instance, Muhammad used budding charismatic leaders to further a compelling concept. Rarely has charismatic leadership been used in this way.

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