If You Believe Charisma Is An Essential CEO Trait Then Think Again


I’m indebted to a corner office dwelling pal of mine who alerted me to this misguided rubbish.

A study from a well-known academic in the field. Purporting to nail the “Characteristics of Top Managers”. Authors Kaplan and Sorensen claim they’ve pinpointed the big “four factors”. I’m not making this up. To quote directly from page 22 of their findings;

“CEOs tend to be more talented, more execution-orientated, more charismatic and more strategic.”

My jaw hit the floor.

This is a topic in which I am hugely interested.

I loved the dismissal of such abundant instruction, from a source the above cite; “often wonderfully disconnected from organizational reality and useless for sparking improvement”.

Having dealt with countless Chief Execs – from the most navy of blue chips ‘down’ – as well being the ceo myself in my own sliver tech startup for a decade – I, as anyone with such exposure would, have encountered all flavours possible. From the sweetest to the most unsavoury.

How can you not immediately react dismissively to such a ‘trait’ as “general ability”? You must be joking.

I was also struck by the potentially flawed methodology. How sometimes you read into raw data what you want (or think you should). And the clear disconnect between these and the currently accepted wisdom on required ceo traits. Including those referred to in their introduction, such as crafted by Jim Collins.

Then again, ought I not channel the “half-life of facts” here? The point at which half of what you once knew becomes obsolete and is superseded. (For instance, in general medicine this is apparently 45 years.) So perhaps new usurps the aged? Well, no.

I suspect many such postulations are cyclical. Today we must strive for hyperopia. Replace yesterday’s myopia. And so on. Swing back from pole to pole. A kind of homeostatic warming in the wild hope we’ll make a magic management formula. If only it were that real.

I find “charisma” a troubling label. The numbers claiming this allows workplace bullying is plain astounding. In the same way Godwin’s Law suggests that not only will the Third Reich by cited in an argument, but whoever does likely loses it, perhaps there ought be a rule along similar lines against hailing the wisdom of messrs Jobs, Gates, Branson and their over-quoted ilk in entrepreneurial selling.

Many confuse charisma with personality.  One definition of this semi-mystic quality is “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others”. Inspire devotion. Creepy. Though the need to garner followers feels prescient during an explosion of “digital” and social media ubiquity.

If you’re familiar with my theme, then you’ll know I yearn for more Sales qualified CEOs.

So, with no surveying whatsoever for back up, let’s imagine a world where true traits underpin progressive leadership. I prefer dynamism to charisma. One definition evokes “vigorous activity and progress”.

To me this encompasses purpose, problem isolation, dynamism, vision and leadership.

A happier and more glorious place indeed, surely.

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