Leadership is about more than charisma

Good article reprinted from The Times Newspaper January 28, 2009 – thought you would enjoy it. It talks about companies being at risk if they become too dependent on the cult of the chief executive, as Apple recently encountered with charismatic leader Steve Jobs.


Leadership is about more than charisma

If there is a cult of the chief executive, then Steve Jobs must stand at its head. Many business leaders have been closely associated with their brands, but none more so than the chief executive of Apple. Mr Jobs, with his understated black polo necks and round glasses, has come to personify his company, a fact highlighted when recent news of his medical leave of absence caused Apple’s share price to tumble.

“Apple is surprisingly dependent on Steve Jobs,” Tim Morris, director of the high performance leadership programme at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, said. “He has the magic combination of a fantastic technical insight and an ability to understand the market. He’s also a master communicator.”

And he is an archetype, in his case the model of a charismatic leader – and that, in turn, is both a towering strength and a potential devastating weakness.

“Charismatic leaders can gather people behind them,” Jo Hennessy, director of research at the Roffey Park Institute, said. “They’re inspiring and strong and, if they’re able to engage staff, the results will follow.”

Can Apple survive without Steve Jobs?
Maria Yapp, chief executive of Xancam, a business psychology company, said that “a big magnetic personality” can launch and revitalise brands, products and companies. “Tony Blair was great for new Labour to kick-start it,” she said, “and Steve Jobs has revitalised the Apple brand.”

But, Ms Hennessey said, “they’re like the central pole in a big top: take the pole out and the tent will collapse.”

Rob Goffee, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and co-author of Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?, said that strong leaders were good at developing disciples, but not successors. “The people that make leaders charismatic are their followers. Barack Obama, for example, is clearly charismatic, but he’s also enigmatic. You can’t pin him down and so he allows us to project our dreams and hopes on to him.”

Ms Hennessy said: “A charismatic leader who likes fame and glory may be more concerned about results today than a long-term legacy. When we coach chief executives to develop their own succession plans, we say: ‘Does it always have to be you? Can you spread the leadership around more?’”

Gareth Jones, visiting professor at Insead, the international business school, said that people were fascinated by how leaders got results. “We’re interested in those who excite others to exceptional performance. For instance, when Martin Johnson led England to victory in the Rugby World Cup, people were saying: ‘How the hell did he do that?’”

Johnson’s successors might have wondered the same thing and, perhaps, if some of his magic might rub off on them. Sadly, in Professor Jones’s words: “You can’t borrow someone else’s charisma. The task for leaders is to work out what it is about themselves that is compelling. We’re all looking for the next Richard Branson or Steve Jobs and we’re not looking at the different ways people are leading.”

Professor Goffee said that figures such as John Major, the former prime minister, used their very ordinariness to lead: “I get worried about the use of the word ‘charisma’, as people think that these are extraordinary qualities that ordinary mortals haven’t got.”

Moreoever, the tide of popularity can turn quickly. Ms Yapp warned: “If you’re known on the strength of your personality, it’s much easier to fail. People in the City tend to panic and see Steve Jobs as being Apple, in the same way that they see Richard Branson as being Virgin.”

There are several things that companies can do to ensure that they do not fall victim to the cult of the chief executive. They can build the loss of a leader into disaster recovery plans, Barry Spence, chairman and chief executive of Cubiks, an HR consultancy, said. They should ensure that they have a strong organisational structure and management team underpinning the leader and that all those in that team get a chance to shine. Crucially, companies should build the product’s reputation as strongly as they build personalities. “While James Dyson is regarded as an innovator, the product has been developed in parallel. So if Dyson went under a bus tomorrow, people would still buy Dyson vacuum cleaners,” Mr Spence said.

And while we may love inspirational but fallible leaders, only one thing matters to the markets: results. Last week Apple posted record revenue of $10.17billion (£7.19billion). As Mr Spence said: “The numbers will always win out.”

Famous Four Leaders
Henry Ford The founder of the Ford motor company revolutionised mass production and brought car ownership to middle-class Americans. An avowed anti-Semite, he was admired by Adolf Hitler

Sir Richard Branson The self-made entrepreneur launched the “world’s first spaceline”, Virgin Galactic, in 2004 and was ranked the 236th richest person in the world by Forbes magazine last year

Jack Welch The former chairman and chief executive of General Electric increased its value from $13 billion to several hundred billion. Dubbed “Neutron Jack”, it was joked that he eliminated employees but left the building standing

Dame Anita Roddick Founder of ethical cosmetics group the Body Shop, she was a high-profile environmental campaigner before her death in 2007

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