NUGGET : Don’t put any leader on a pedestal.


A mainstream view of leadership is that the best leaders (people with institutional power) have lots of charisma. They use it to instill vision, values, and culture and to make sure people are aligned, committed, and acculturated. These charismatic leaders are the heroes, even rock stars, of many leadership books.

But is charisma all it’s touted to be? An interesting, scholarly book on leadership encourages us to wake up from the charisma trance. I’d like to share some of its insights (note: I hope to serve you, my busy reader, by sometimes being a research forager and translator). The book is The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective, by Dr. Dennis Tourish. It exposes the “cult-leader” dark side of charismatic leadership, raising again the question, “what kind of leaders do we need today?”

For a while I thought this might be another book that bashes formal leaders. But, no. Tourish accepts that business organizations have purpose and need people in leadership roles. But he warns about what lurks in the shadows of an organization dominated by an ethos of heroic leadership.

His chilling conclusion? The charismatic leader is often a kind of cult leader: worshipped as a hero, dominating with a compelling vision, relating through manipulation and benevolence, shaping behavior with rewards, managing thought through indoctrination rituals and a strong culture, and personally benefiting from an imbalance of power.

He warns us about the “high potential for abuse” when both leaders and followers buy into the charismatic view — and he reminds us that we are especially vulnerable to this kind of leader-follower relationship during times of stress and uncertainty. I think of studies showing how citizens are more likely to give up their freedoms and power during times of threat and uncertainty.

He offers practical advice that we know but often don’t take: keep both positive and negative communication flowing, put processes in place that prevent abuse and that bring goal and value tensions into the open for resolution, help leaders to become more aware of their own power and the dynamics of power as they play out their leadership roles.

Years ago a book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him reminded us about the dark side of putting people on pedestals. Every so often, it seems, we need a reminder!

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