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I can clearly remember the scene back in the day when I was holding a thick manual for a key leadership development program which I was planning to co-deliver in Cairo. Delegates were flying from all around the Middle East and Africa to attend the event which was taking place at a landmark hotel overlooking the River Nile. I could not believe my own eyes, the manual which listed the various types of leadership styles and approaches, highlighted that ‘charismatic leadership’ is not an appropriate model to be recommended. How is that so, the young professional that I was at that time was perplexed!
In the Middle East, we have a long and rich tradition and history: the pyramid itself is a model of a very narrow apex at the top, with a wide bottom. In this part of the world, the ‘one and only’ revered leader at the top is almost a proverb. The ‘larger than life’ leader, the one who ‘everybody would be lost without’ and all that ‘populist’ charismatic folklore. And there comes the leadership manual to dismantle and shatter all those concepts and mental images!
My British veteran co-facilitator at the time, wisely shared her thoughts: charismatic leadership has its strengths, but it has its downfalls as well, she added. It is not sustainable, and if everything depends on one person, it is a dangerous situation, because if the leader is no longer there, this leaves a huge vacuum and creates a major risk for the organization as everything revolves around the charismatic leader. Bang.
Charisma is no guarantee for wisdom. The force of the personality, the ability to influence and to have an emotional connection with others, can also cause large numbers to follow blindly without much questioning.
Digesting this ‘paradigm shift’ was thought-provoking indeed! I was then quickly fully convinced that charismatic leadership is a risk, particularly when power, authority and expertise are concentrated in one person. A key learning point, which I digested and passed on to my participants again and again throughout my career.
What are the wider and global implications of this lesson?
Charismatic leadership as a risk
Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister being admitted to intensive care in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, was a sobering reminder of the risks connected with over-reliance on a key dominant figure. At the most critical time and in the heart of a crisis, illness or other circumstances can take out the key figure and leave the followers with feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and possibly ‘at a loss’ because of the leadership vacuum. A number of other leaders had to self-isolate for a while as well; including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Merkel of Germany, and having to rely on electronic and virtual means to connect with their teams. A strong reminder that leaders are mere mortals and like all human beings can fall victim to risks. On the corporate level, sometimes the illness or retirement of a charismatic leader can cause a sharp drop in share price. There is also the latent cost if the charismatic leadership goes astray and implicates his/her people and society, and in other cases, the region or the world.
Shared leadership as a way forward
The magnitude of the challenges ahead in order to emerge from the triple crisis (climate, conflict (war in Europe) and post covid economic turmoil, at the national or institutional levels or even within a family, require the combined efforts of strong and formidable teams.
‘’None of us is as smart as all of us’’ certainly comes to mind at this historical juncture!
In his article How Shared Leadership Changes Our Relationships at work, Declan Fitzsimons elaborates that shared leadership ‘’has to do with a team sharing a sense of purpose and responsibility for the overall leadership … Different people may spearhead different aspects of the team’s work, but everyone is in charge, always.’’
He advocated that in a highly complex world witnessing rapid change, we are ‘’drawn to the benefit of leadership that is shared, rather than concentrated in a single, charismatic individual. Regardless of the exact organizational structure or what it’s called, the times seem to call for leaders who can be first among equals.’’
When a culture of shared leadership is established, the combined talents, efforts and energy of the entire leadership team can be maximized. With everyone visible and sharing the leadership responsibilities, the risk of a leadership vacuum is minimized following the departure or exit of the ‘charismatic leader’. The diversity among the members of the leadership team (age, gender, background, specialization, etc.) is essential as it provides for an opportunity to have multiple perspectives and varied life-experiences often leading to healthy challenges among the team, avoiding ‘groupthink’ and ensuring that matters are well thought through and cross-examined carefully.
‘’It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others’’ – Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (French Renaissance philosopher and writer)
Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from the Swiss model. These lessons are not only applicable to leadership on the national level, but also leadership at an organizational level as well. Switzerland is led by a team of seven leaders. Collectively the seven-member federal council is the country’s Head of State. The President of the Swiss Confederation is a first among equals. He/she has no powers over and above the other six councilors and holds office for one year and they take turns in rotation. Switzerland is one of the most stable countries in the world. Shared leadership, among other factors, helps ensure that the combined wisdom of various people is utilized when every important decision is being made.
The challenges we are facing today call upon us to re-visit which leadership model would create more stability, more creative and diverse solutions for companies, communities and the world. Fresh thinking is in order!