Saturday, January 30, 2010

Special Assignments Require Charismatic Leadership, but There Are Limitations

Pundits and laymen often weigh in on the virtues and vices of charisma. Advocates of charisma look for tools and new information to be more engaging and magnetic. Invariably, these individuals desire distinction and recognition in an insipid and calamitous world. While adherents chase this illustrious trait and its manifestation, the downside of charisma is often misunderstood. It’s like the aspiring celebrity who once lied awake at night dreaming about millions of adoring fans in his first silver screen premier. The pomp and pageantry was palpable. Finally, the day arrived and that walk on the Red Carpet was just what he imagined. Now, his life is not his own. He has become property of the public where the loss of privacy is the price for fame and fortune. Of course, the fantasy is always better than reality. His current histrionics involve anything from throwing a phone across a crowded room to physical altercations with the paparazzi. The downside of fame and fortune seemed more manageable in the dream. In this instance, the actor chose his fate.

Conversely, true charismatic personalities are a combination of biological predisposition and environmental influences. Arguably, they didn’t consciously choose the dynamics that formed them. When charismatic personalities are exhibiting great oratory, colorful dialog and the ability for great interpersonal connections, they are demonstrating the affectation of charisma.

But, what is the less glamorous side of charismatic leadership? Is it true that charismatic leaders often have a high attrition rate among adherents? Are charismatic leaders often fired or summarily dismissed from positions and projects they were initially recruited to lead? The Mega church, World Changers headed by Dr. Creflo Dollar in College Park, Georgia is an excellent example of the vagary of charismatic leadership. Florence Duncan, a former World Changers member said, “"World Changers teaches a theology and doctrine that people want to hear… There's nothing wrong with wanting to prosper, but to present that as the central core of the teachings of Christianity is a deception and lie. I'd say that they would have just about as much chance of gaining abundant prosperity by purchasing a lottery ticket”(Sherrell, 1997, para. 32). Another former church member, Demetrius King said “I thought it could work...It sounds good and you would want it to work. It's as simple as one, two three -- tithe and you will prosper”(Sherrell, 1997, para 30). Reportedly, King left the church after his financial situation didn’t improve.

Charismatic leaders are adept at getting specific goals completed, but the challenge comes with the inability to manage the expectations of adherents. To this extent, charismatic leadership is a “double edged sword.” On one side, adherents hear and feel the direction of the charismatic leader and want to contribute to bringing the vision to fruition. On the other side, when tasks seem insurmountable, take too long or isn’t happening specifically as the charismatic leaders has proposed, disillusion, discontentment and disenchantment sets in. Thus the adherent leaves the organization and another hopeful convert takes his place. The shortsightedness of the charismatic leader shows his ability to inspire, but not acknowledge the limitations and co-dependency of his followers.

When charismatic personalities are rising stars within a company, the twinkle can often diminish. The late John Z. DeLorean was a star engineer at General Motors. DeLorean is credited for creating the Pontiac GTO, Pontiac Firebird and DeLorean DMC-12 sports car. “DeLorean always claimed he had fired General Motors, but it was actually the other way around: GM had fired him, basically because power had gone to his head, and he was more interested in dating (and marrying) young blondes in California than he was in the boring business of making cars. Even more importantly, he was no longer ‘making his numbers’ - an unforgivable sin for the suits in Detroit’” (Fallon, 2005, para 4).

Ousted Hewlett Packard (HP) CEO, Carly Fiorina is another example of the trappings of charisma. Fiorina was recruited by HP from Lucent Technologies Inc. in 1999. The following year, the company added chairman to her list of titles, making her the first woman to hold all three top posts — president, CEO and chairman — at a major computer company. Like DeLorean, as Fiorina began her quest to expand HP’s reach and competitive edge, dissenters pounced. Dr. James Owers, professor of finance at the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University and an expert on corporate reorganization said “She brought about a major acquisition, that, from the objective of those of us who look at corporate restructuring, had absolutely no merit. Combining H-P with Compaq appeared to be more an ego trip, not a business deal. Many of us are still saying, ’Where’s the rationale here?’”(AP, 2005, para 8).

Authorities on leadership are quick to criticize the Charismatic leadership model as possessing more show than substance. Extensive tomes have been written on the ideal leader as if this mythical figure exists in a vacuum. While there are effective tools to be garnered from most leadership models, charismatic leadership may be one of the only leadership models where there is very little demarcation between the model and the personality. Other leadership traits may be transferable or separated from the individual, but the Charismatic leadership model is inextricable from the individual.

The effectiveness of charismatic leadership will hinge on the dynamics and longevity of the situation. If traditional leadership models are hatchets, charismatic leadership is a scalpel. Timing and precision are everything in its degree of effectiveness.


Associated Press (AP).(2005 February 9). Hewlett Packard top executive ousted. Retrieved from:

Fallon, I. (2005 March 22). John DeLorean: The man who fooled the world. The Independent: Retrieved from:

Sherrell, R. (1997 Dec. 6). Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International: Cult or Christianity. Creative Loafing: Retrieved from:

For more information, visit: Charisma

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