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Charismatic Leadership: Style or Substance?



Have you ever watched a charismatic person “work” a room? At the outset, they assess the collective mood. Then they advance to the gathering with a demeanor that suits the environment and their desired role within it. Moving from one person to the next, they engage each individual, albeit briefly, as though that person was a VIP. Regardless of authenticity, personality can be an irresistible force.

No one knows this better than political parties. America’s Democrats had a 50 year love affair with the Kennedys. And when a Kennedy wasn’t available for the White House, the Party discovered two other charismatic personalities in Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama to occupy it. Meanwhile, Republicans desperately search for a candidate with the charm of Ronald Reagan.

In political contests, style is prerequisite number one. Is this also the case in business leadership? If it is, the notion begs a second question; can aspiring leaders and rookie CEOs find the captivating style that is bestowed upon the chosen few? Those who strive for this quality are known to study the art and the science of leadership presence. They take courses on public speaking, they learn how to stand out in group settings, they search out mentors and leadership coaches who help them engage, connect and influence others. These measures will certainly help to improve one’s leadership presence.

That’s all well and good except for the fact that in business contests, style IS NOT prerequisite number one. Style is number two. When astute boards of directors are choosing their next CEO, they begin their search by looking for substance – the candidate’s track record of accomplishment. I’m not for a moment saying that presence isn’t important. CEOs with style AND substance are potent forces. This explains why style weighs heavily in the selection criteria. Boards know that CEOs must motivate the organization’s employees to do great things. Great things bring great profits.

The pertinent point is that charisma is but one factor contributing to presence. Essential to leadership presence at the top are several elements of substance that make for success over the long haul. These are the qualities that help leaders transform followers from the ordinary to extraordinary. They have nothing to do with good looks, a million dollar smile, a firm handshake, or the gift of the gab. Here are 9 vital elements of leadership substance and 1 vital element of CEO substance:

  1. Great leaders share compelling visions. Visions are the catalysts to inspire people to go the extra mile to help the leader and their colleagues to get to a better place.
  2. Great leaders are open and approachable. They tell individuals and teams what they expect, and why the hard work that must be done is important to the entire organization.
  3. Great leaders exude trust. When leaders trust employees, employees trust leaders.
  4. Great leaders are genuine. Honor, honesty and authenticity impacts every follower and makes their daily efforts meaningful.
  5. Great leaders act collaboratively. They take the time to walk the factory, asking people what they think. Surprise, surprise . . . because these leaders are listeners, employees tell them what they think.
  6. Great leaders put their employees first. Customers come second, shareholders are third. Why? Because happy employees = happy customers = happy shareholders.
  7. Great leaders are courageous. In a crisis, they always put their own interests last.
  8. Great leaders are decisive. Nothing demotivates faster than procrastination in the C-suite.
  9. Great leaders exhibit confidence. They have confidence in themselves and in those on their team.

Great leaders usually make great CEOs, but not always. Steve Jobs was the greatest CEO of our time, but he was also woefully weak in several of the above tenets. Would Apple have risen to such heights without him? Not likely. Jobs’ weaknesses were no match for his strengths. This is an anomaly. But make no mistake; a great leader will never be a great CEO if he or she doesn’t deliver on the final tenet.

Great CEOs get the job done. This means skillfully executing strategies that propel companies to superb fiscal performance over the long term.

By nature, great leaders are time-starved species. So I ask you . . . are you going to spend your time studying and practicing presence techniques or are you going work on the elements of substance that will bring the joy of guiding followers and watching them grow?

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