Cult of “Leadership”

“Charisma is the result of effective leadership, not the other way around.”  — Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from mid-managers is the lack of real “engagement” with the senior team.  Most of the time is spent in meetings and other business rituals where little real connection or engagement takes place.  By “engagemenet” I mean the authentic dialogue and emotional connection between two or more participants.  You can read a lot about “employee engagement” but almost nothing about “senior management engagement”.  I’ve always believed ideas flow better on a two way street!

Besides the common excuse of lack of time, there seems to be two other significant contributing factors to lack of leadership engagement.  First, engaged leadership is very hard work and with all the other time demands on executives, real engagement can easily lose out.

Second is the modern day obsession we have with the leader as celebrity and the cult of “executive stardom”.  One of the by-products of the focus on charisma and personality as a major determinant of leadership is that people allow and even expect their leaders to be slightly removed from the “work of the organization” and respond to ideas from their leaders as infallible pronouncements.  In companies where the cult of leadership is strong, few managers speak up or challenge ideas that come from above.

For the past several decades we have seen the era of “superstar leadership” and “charismatic unaccountability” where position, title, obscene compensation and attendance at Davos have been substituted for engaged and effective leadership.  And the results were evident during the recent global financial meltdown.  It is my belief that many of these super-CEOs were the beneficiary of a booming economy (and easy access to money) as opposed to having brilliant leadership skills.

In his classic research on major corporate disasters and the leaders responsible for them, Sydney Finkelstein, professor and author of  Why Smart Executives Fail cites the “superstar syndrome” and “ineffective leadership practices” as being at the heart of many spectacular corporate failures.

By focusing too much on the CEO, or other superstar executives as the hero “with all the answers”, robust leadership processes that can surface valuable information and engage all the members of the leadership team in candid debate tend to take a back seat.  Thus the individual superstar who helped orchestrate a spectacular business success several years ago can just as easily lead the company into irrecoverable disaster.  This culture of worshiping charismatic leaders tends to over inflate the importance of the individual at the expense of full engagement by the senior team and masks the critical importance of leadership processes on business success.

No one of us is as smart as all of us.

Tight Lines . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Cult of “Leadership”

  1. Pingback: Leaders and Decisions . . . | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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