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Transcript: Why charismatic leaders are sometimes ineffective ones

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton has presence when he comes into a room. He surprised journalists at a recent book signing by asking them whether they had any questions. He fielded several before going back to signing books.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

KARL MOORE: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, talking management for The Globe and Mail. Today, I am delighted to be speaking to Martin Kilduff, who is a professor [of management studies at the Judge Business School]at Cambridge University.

Good morning, Martin.

MARTIN KILDUFF: Good morning, Karl.

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KM: Martin, you have done some fascinating research on leadership, looking at charismatic leaders. What are some of the key things you have learned about the nature of charismatic leadership?

MK: Well, what is really interesting in the research that I have been doing is that we've challenged or investigated the notion that charismatic leadership is something that people carry with them, that is recognized, and that leads to beneficial outcomes.

So the alternative might be that charismatic leadership is discovered, or perhaps even invented or attributed, in the process of social interaction so that a leader, a formally appointed leader, might or might not have the trust and the confidence of his subordinates – in the sense that they would come to him or her for advice about work-related problems.

What we have discovered is that, during that process of interaction, if the formally appointed leader does indeed have that central position in the informal network, then charisma is often contributed and discovered during that process. In a sense, it is the social interaction that produces the charisma and not the other way around. In fact, we find that leaders that are charismatic, or seen as charismatic by their subordinates, are sort of left alone.

Our hypothesis, or our supposition, is that that they are regarded with some awe, are put on a pedestal, they are not approached and are not asked for advice. So, in some ways, their effectiveness is diluted because, though they may be making visionary pronouncements and regarded with great admiration, it is a rather distant relationship in terms of the work group.

KM: When I think of charisma, I have always thought of presence as an element of it – someone who has a presence when they come into the room, almost like a [former U.S. president]Bill Clinton, and, in the extreme, takes the oxygen out of the room. I interviewed [British entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir]Richard Branson last year, and Richard Branson at a cocktail [party]had charisma; he had a presence, there. Is that an element of charisma as well?

MK: Well that is the interesting issue that we were looking at in this research because what you have described is, in a sense, absolutely true. But that turns out to be not very helpful in the sense of allowing the person to become central.

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We have a vision of the charismatic individual that walks into a room and somehow attracts people but, in these work teams we looked at, that absolutely doesn't happen – in terms of people coming to that charismatic individual looking for advice, or indeed that charismatic leader going to them and asking them or soliciting advice.

So if we think of someone as [U.S. President]Barack Obama, who is often regarded as charismatic, his leadership style seems to be to solicit lots of advice, and people come to him for advice. We don't see that in these teams, and we looked at almost 100 different teams across different countries over time. And what we saw was that the charismatic leader sucks the oxygen out of the room but that is not necessarily a positive thing. He or she may give the inspiring speeches but fundamentally lacks this contact in terms of being the centre of the advice network.

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