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Charismatic leaders: don’t confuse the sizzle with the sausage

Whether we like to admit it, most of us are easily seduced by a charismatic leader. They exude confidence, charm and certainty, which many of us find appealing in challenging and volatile times. They are often a little bit maverick, often outspoken and seem to be saying things that others won’t say.

We have a couple of archetypal, current examples at the top of both the UK and USA. Many find this appealing and the media fall over themselves to comment on everything they say and do – or even what they don’t say and don’t do. They radiate headlines and punchlines and are an easy win for any beleaguered editor. We should perhaps beware of confusing the sizzle with the sausage.

Some typical features of charismatic leaders are narcissism, self-interest, persuasive oratory, the ability to lie convincingly, a thirst for power and the smooth ability to seem like one thing while actually being another. It is perhaps unsurprising that they tend to be men – and usually alpha males.

Charismatic leaders are often shape-shifters; adopting stances and ideas very quickly when they are helpful and dropping them even faster when they prove difficult. The point of any action is to get their own way and serve their own ends, usually while convincing their audience that they are doing it in the service of some other purpose.

Contrast this with the idea of servant leadership, which many expert thinkers and commentators believe is the style required in these volatile and challenging times.

Servant leaders are committed to serving those they lead or represent, subsuming their own ego and desires for the greater good and delivering those benefits they were appointed or elected to lead. Their primary purpose is to support and enable their colleagues to be the best version of themselves, to grow and to achieve for the benefit of all stakeholders. Such leaders tend to prefer to deflect attention and praise to the team, to bring people together and to seek to unite them in a vision that serves the wider community. Think more Gareth Southgate than José Mourinho.

They usually do far more good – and, crucially, far less harm – but they don’t make such good copy. Our challenge is that the media and the general public still think that ‘real’ leaders are those charismatic types that appear strong, certain, clear and dynamic. They are the ones we see on TV, in books or in films, whether real or fictional. I think, by the way, that this is one of the last barriers to women in leadership, as these characters are almost always men and the very apparent leadership capabilities of a JK Rowling or Michelle Obama are too easy to marginalise.

Beware the charismatic leader. Who do they really serve?

Thanks to Nigel Girling - Director of The National Centre for Strategic Leadership

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