The Myth of the Charismatic Leader

By Thomas J. Lee

Let me tell you a story.

It's the story of my very first experience in grown-up leadership. I was all of 17 years old. The church that my family attended was recruiting a new senior pastor. Inexplicably, the elders — pillars of the community, all of them — asked me to serve on the search committee.

It was a heady experience for such a callow young man. I had never even held a full-time job, let alone hired anyone for a full-time job, and I certainly hadn't participated in any endeavor like this, for goodness sake. Yet here I was with an equal voice and an equal vote in the selection of the church's new leader. I would certainly learn a few things.

In some ways the experience was comical. I had all the executive documents, meeting minutes, and privileged personnel records of the candidates in my room at home. Naturally I was sworn to secrecy, and I was determined to keep that confidence. My mother, however, was pestered by the other ladies of her bridge circle to pry loose my secrets. I refused to budge. Not a peep. But one day I came home from school and noticed that my confidential files had been disturbed. My mother got a scolding! She fessed up, and I swore her to secrecy.

Well, after months of surreptitious Sunday visits to churches hundreds of miles from home, in-depth interviews, lengthy deliberations, due diligence, and multiple rounds of voting, the search committee issued a call to a pastor from southern California, and he accepted. He seemed to be a perfect fit. We wanted a young and energetic man, an eloquent speaker from the pulpit, and most of all a dynamic, charismatic leader. That's exactly what he was.

Forty-plus years later, I still remember the day he and his wife arrived at a cocktail reception the elders hosted to welcome them. (I came straight from school, and I was served Coke.) When the front door opened and the new pastor and his wife stepped in, his powerful physical presence brought forth an energy that immediately refreshed and rejuvenated. All the committee members and their spouses shared in the excitement. The church was heading in a new direction, for sure.

The next year I graduated from high school and went off to the university, and it was a couple of years after that when, on campus, I heard the scandalous news from home. Our young, dynamic reverend was irreverently involved in an extramarital affair with a beautiful widow whom he had been counseling in her grief. The pastor's wife asked him to move out of the parsonage. The church bulletin coyly printed a small item saying the pastor could henceforth be reached at a new telephone number. His ministry no longer tenable, the pastor soon resigned. Payton Place had nothing on my hometown.

Clearly, we had made an abysmal choice. Bedazzled and perhaps bamboozled by outward appearances, we were enraptured by his charisma, charm, eloquence, and energy—even at the expense of the truly important criteria of integrity, character, soulfulness, authenticity, and self-discipline.

Our pastor was scarcely the first leader to go down a dark path. Countless others—in religion and in government, in sports and in the media, on Wall Street and in Hollywood—have done likewise. From peccadillo to peccancy, so many individuals in whom we have placed our trust have profoundly disappointed us.

I have been studying and teaching leadership for a long, long time, and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: Pay less attention to such ephermal things as appearances, magnetism, and charm. Especially beware charisma, for charismatic individuals can be, and alarmingly often are, seductive of their own willpower and character. Instead, pay more attention to discipline, ideas, strategies, resourcefulness, ability, integrity, experience—and to the soulful dimensions of leadership such as vulnerability, empathy, self-awareness, authenticity, respect, and decency.

None of this is to say that interpersonal skills, communication, and relationships are unimportant. To the contrary. They are absolutely vital. But in the long run they depend more on who we are, especially in the face of pressure and temptation, than on mere appearances and charm. That's especially true of individuals whose personality is so enrapturing that they have all but coasted through the real challenge of forging and sustaining resilient, deep personal connection. Throw in wealth, looks, and smooth talk, and you have an explosive combination indeed.

Leaders are people. People are often weak. I'm not expecting perfection. But I am hoping for excellence, and charisma isn't necessarily part of it.