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The charisma culture - a leadership myth

The Life: Do charismatic people make more inspiring leaders? Apparently not, according to a top leadership professor from the US.

Professor Sim Sitkin, a leadership professor with Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Charles Crowell for The National.
Professor Sim Sitkin, a leadership professor with Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Charles Crowell for The National.

Sim Sitkin is a leadership professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. He was in Dubai last week to teach in the first Dubai Duke Leadership Workshop. He explains why charismatic leaders may not necessarily be the most inspiring.

What approach does the programme take on leadership?

Our approach challenges the idea, for example, that leaders are born, challenges the idea that the most important thing to know about a potential leader is their inherent traits or capabilities, like either intelligence or personality … We focus on the specific behaviours you can engage in to enhance the effectiveness of your leadership.

What has more influence on leadership style - personality or intelligence?

I think both of them are tools in the tool kit. Does it help to be smarter? Of course, because you are more perceptive about what's going on around you, you're going to be more credible to the people around you. But sometimes the most intelligent people have trouble connecting with others. They have trouble seeing it from [other people's] perspective as it's so obvious to the person who is smart. We don't have strong research data on this, but I don't think being charismatic necessarily helps you very much and could even hurt you in being an inspirational leader.

Why?

To inspire other people, what you need to do is to convey a clear and compelling vision of the future that is exciting. There is a reason I should strive for something difficult. If you are charismatic and you engage in those behaviours, that's golden. The reason I think being charismatic may have neither effect, or [may] have a negative effect, is because for charismatic individuals, it's more about them than the followers. They may have never had to learn to engage in the behaviours that are focused on encouraging others.

What makes leaders fall from grace?

I think the most fundamental reason that leaders fall from grace is that they lose a sense of themselves. They may get too caught up in the trappings of getting attention, being treated as special and maybe begin to believe their own press. The more important your role, the more inclined people are to tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than the truth. As a leader, you need to actively create an environment where you can do that, because otherwise it's too easy to spend your time effectively looking in the mirror rather than through the glass to see the world and to see what's needed.

What is the difference between a great leader and a good leader?

I think the most important thing is that they have an incredible talent for connecting with people in a way that enables those people to do things they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. It's an enabling and empowering connection. The other thing is that great leaders often, but not always, have great insight into what is needed in a situation. It can be what the people need, what strategically the organisation needs or what the customers need.

* Gillian Duncan

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