Thursday, 20 March 2008

Charismatic leaders may hinder sustainability of improvement

Of course we know that the skill of the truly great leader is to leave behind a team and a succession plan that not only maintains the knowledge and practices that have generated their success so far, but also supports their ongoing learning and development.

Fine words. How often do you see that in practice where the person leading the team can be described as "charismatic"? I could blog for weeks on the definition of charisma at work, so have settled for now on it being a combination of personal traits that enable an individual to reach out to other's emotions in a way that taps their motivation to do things. Usually charming and persuasive these individuals get their own way amongst their systems, for better or worse. As far as public figures go, I'm thinking of people like Mother Teresa, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King etc.

So how does charisma affect the sustainability of results in improvement projects?

Here are some questions for you to think about when you next choose the person to lead a key project or programme in your organisation where the sustainability of results will be important.

Are you choosing the person because of their charisma? Maybe you feel the need to have someone with the energy and passion to start the project and to motivate others.

To what extent could the project become so identified with the individual that there is a risk that

  • team members eventually become demotivated because they get less recognition / air time
  • when (and it is most likely a when rather than an if) the leader moves on, the majority of the knowledge and PR moves on with them
  • no-one is prepared to "tell the emperor he has no clothes", to provide feedback, thus diminishing the learning opportunities
  • succession planning becomes impossible and the person is deemed irreplacable

So you're thinking, none of our project leaders are ever that charistmatic! Well, according to the theory, we are most likely to find many of these traits amongst the more innovative and early adopters of new practices (though not exclusively as some laggards can be highly and effectively persuasive...). It is likely that many pilot projects and early innovations are led by leaders who demonstrate the ability to capture the imaginations and hearts of their followers. These same individuals will later leave to follow other interests, for the similar reasons they got involved with the first pilot.

Take a close look around you. What patterns do you see linking the leaders of your improvement projects and the sustainability of the reults of those projects?

Now that's a research project worth doing. Anyone want to collaborate?

(c) 2008, Sarah Fraser

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