We have been discussing the varying types of leadership over the breakfast table recently and we have come to some startling conclusions which I would like to share with you today.

Perhaps I should indicate our level of expertise in this subject, as I expect you would like to know whether or not our conclusions are reasonable. Well both the husband and I have served in positions of authority within the military and by virtue of our position have exercised leadership over our subordinates.

In other words we gave orders and they followed them! Which is a perfect example of authoritarian leadership in action – our leadership was backed by the authority of our rank and subordinates were well aware that to disobey a lawful command provoked dire penalties.

We had both command and control – and very useful it was in moments of crisis of which there are many in the military. This is probably why this style of leadership automatically is linked to the armed services.

However, it soon became apparent that such a style didn’t always guarantee a level of cooperation that may have been necessary to achieve the outcomes required. Oh yes, when the chips were down and the proverbial was dripping off the overhead ventilation unit – soldiers wanted, no they needed, to know that someone was in command; that the leader had the knowledge and the confidence to get them out of this mess.

But in the less frenetic scene of the barracks it was a different matter. Of course you could still fling your orders around and of course they would probably be obeyed but the atmosphere would become a trifle chilly bordering on icy!

Both of us realised that we needed a different style to create a willingness to buy into the tasks and an emotional connection that would help our soldiers personally identify with the goals we needed to achieve.

So we developed what we later found out was ‘inclusive leadership’ – and we found that out when undergoing the training necessary for our next promotion. We had to go and learn to do what we had actually been doing for years.

I tell you this because I want you to know that I come to leadership from a practical point of view; and while I have studied the various arts, traits, characteristics etc of leadership for over twenty years I have always looked at them from the point of view of “What’s the chances of this working with my soldiers?” And I have to tell you that in many cases the answer is “Not much!”

There is also the added advantage that while I have been a leader, I have at the same time also been a follower. Unless you are the Chief of General Staff, there is usually going to be another level of leadership to which you yourself are subject, and so you get a bird’s eye view of what works for you and what does not.

This is a great learning curve – if it doesn’t work with me, it’s probably not going to work with my soldiers either. Lesson – don’t do it.

Which brings me to the topic of conversation at the breakfast table today. For one reason or another I have been revisiting the concept of Charismatic Leadership.

Charisma is a Greek word which roughly means “divinely inspired gift’. To be more precise I delved into my 1500 word Concise Oxford Dictionary who obviously thought it a trifle difficult to define because it didn’t list it. Nor did my 1600 page Newham’s, and I finally found it in my 1943 copy of Chamber’s Dictionary where it confidently told me that charisma was a gift of the gods.

Now you see, that none of those definitions actually tell us what the characteristics of a charismatic leader actually are. And I really don’t think we can define them more accurately either – let’s face it if the OED shirks the task, what chance do we have.

So when we come to assessing the qualities and attributes of a charismatic leader we are on shaky ground I fear.

So I decided to apply the standards that worked for me in the army, and thought about those leaders who, for some reason or another, really inspired me to try harder, reach further and achieve things I though impossible. I recalled quite a few, but you know I would not have described them as ‘charismatic’ – I would have called them inspirational. They inspired my motivation for success.

Charisma is a neutral characteristic which, in itself, is neither good nor bad. It is like electricity. Electricity works for us if we turn it on at the wall, but can have catastrophic effects if we stick our fingers in the socket. In either case, the electricity itself is blameless; likewise charisma can have beneficial effects or they can be catastrophic.

And we can see that if we study the actions of some historic charismatic leaders. The one that immediately springs to my mind is Adolf Hitler. There can be no better example of a leader with great charisma; and I do not have to highlight the catastrophe that led to.

If charisma is that ‘divine gift from the gods’ to influence and to inspire people to great or dreadful deeds – how do we differentiate it from purely inspirational leaders?

This is my way – Inspirational leaders will focus on our personal goals; they will encourage us as individuals to go beyond our limitations to reach out for what we can be if we try.

Charismatic leaders will focus on the group; they often tap into cultural values and expectations. Charismatic leadership is usually associated with religious fervour and politicians – which brings us back to Hitler.

Hitler focused on the need for the German people to move beyond the humiliation of defeat and the crushing reparations imposed – and there was a need for that to happen so the intent was positive.

By tapping into the group need he was able to move the people to an emotional connection with his goals and thereby they gave their implied consent to his actions to achieve them.

That he tapped into that group need with the emotional trapping of engagement, (large meetings full of pomp and ritual; the need for group identification; the passionate speeches etc) would have been nothing if he, himself, had not exhibited that ‘divine spark’ – charisma. But can anyone really define what that was?

I learned my leadership style by academic studies, but also by personal example of what worked and what didn’t in other leaders. I learned more about the qualities of leadership by observing poor leaders than I ever did by studying successful ones.

So I believe that when it comes to charismatic leadership we need to tread a trifle carefully. If I was to indicate my preference I would much prefer to be acknowledged as an inspirational leader than a charismatic one.

When I asked one of my ex-soldiers how he rated my leadership style, he thought for a moment and then said “Not bad” – which in military terms is high praise.

Charisma?  Who needs it? – I’m Not Bad!
I shall now go and rest on my laurels.

Michele @ Trischel

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