The Charismatic Leader: Is There a Downside?

Posted by David Grossman on Wed,Mar 09, 2011

describe the imageThere’s been much discussion and speculation lately about Apple’s future without Steve Jobs. 

Which brings me to a critical question: What’s the potential negative impact of a charismatic CEO?  Understanding that impact and the potential traps will help us better manage similar situations.  The learnings here don’t just apply to the C-suite, but to teams throughout organizations where there’s a visionary leader.

Early in my career, I worked for a large health care organization with a wonderfully visionary and very charismatic CEO.  He was – in many ways – larger than life.  His presence easily filled a room and then some.  He played the role as CEO and as Communications Director, and provided the inspiration and motivation the company needed to succeed.

He was someone you could believe in, and became the chief voice of leadership.  He was adored by employees and The Street alike.  The business results followed.

One day, he left.  And the void was palpable.  What he left in his wake provides a significant lesson for all of us.

Since he was chief communicator and cheerleader, he left a senior leadership team who didn’t understand the value of communication, the part they played in it, nor did they have the competency to communicate in his absence.  He had carried all the water, so to speak, and well, the well was dry. 

This wasn’t about someone else being as charismatic as he was; this was about filling the communication void in a meaningful way.  These senior leaders didn’t know what they didn’t know, and part of that was understanding how his communication style and approach engaged the entire organization.  And they didn’t know how much time and energy he focused on communicating with various stakeholders.  He made it look seamless because it was a skill he worked at regularly.

The answer to this trap lies not only in a strong succession plan, but in a leadership team where communications responsibilities are shared, and where this learned skill is honed.  Ideally, any senior leader should be able to step in to handle a global all-employee meeting or a conference call with analysts as well as the CEO.  Each senior leader has a part of the leadership communication platform and messages, and can (and should be able to) speak for any other critical function beyond their own.

In other words, other senior leaders have what it takes to step in when a CEO leaves, and will be able to hit the ground running to ensure business doesn’t stop, slow or get interrupted.

How well prepared is your team when it comes to their communication skills, and their ability to step in and take the place of the senior most leader?


- David Grossman



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