Working with charismatic leaders

It’s often great to have a charismatic and influential team member. Things get done quickly—possibly miraculous things, that people never before thought possible. There’s an excitement about the place. If that person is a leader of a team or teams then often much depends on them.

All of this is good, and it helps push the organisation further and faster than it might have achieved otherwise.

But there is a danger if their peers or the people above them do not understand how they operate. They are often just happy with the magic they perform without looking much more deeply. Then when they leave, the gap that’s left is bigger than usual, and the senior team don’t know how to replace them.

This problem is most acute the higher we go up the ladder. In an executive team everyone is quite different—the marketing leader, the finance leader, the technical leader, and so on. I work mostly with technical people, and too often I’ve seen a charismatic leader leave, putting their remaining people into technical disarray and demoralised.

Because the leader was so special there were so many dependencies on them—to hold the vision, to make decisions, to win support for actions—that those remaining have lost the ability to do these things for themselves. And because they were unique among their executive peers it’s hard for the appointing team to identify a suitable replacement. Their own skills are quite different; any other candidate with a strong personality is likely to be a jarring change; a more consensual team-builder will need to rebuild their people’s self-confidence, as well as the vision that is partly in the head of the person who has left.

This isn’t an argument against charismatic leaders. It’s an argument for ensuring there is an effective succession plan. It’s about engaging that leader, understanding them, how they work, and what they’re really doing, and ensuring enough people understand and can continue the various elements of their work.

Otherwise we’re placing a lot of dependency on something (and someone) we just don’t really understand.

Photo by HendersonStateU