Busting a Common Myth Preventing Students From Leading

Rich was one of the most consistent student leaders I witnessed while living in San Diego. But he almost never led anything; he came an inch from never, stepping up and showing his peers what he could do. He almost failed to jump a common hurdle that keeps millions of students from leading today.

His hurdle? He wasn’t a “natural.”

You see, Rich had little to no charisma. His personality was steady, not winsome. And like so many others, Rich assumed good leaders had to be charismatic – very persuasive, their lips are dripping with inspiration and their temperaments magnetic. Let’s face it, when we think about great leaders in history, we often conjure up this picture. The really good ones are natural leaders who look like this.

Fortunately for most of us, this is a myth.


The Myth That Great Leaders Must Be Charismatic

While we do tend to follow charismatic leaders, most leaders do not fit this description. In fact, the best ones, who last over the long haul, are what Dr. Jim Collins calls “Level Five Leaders.” His research shows that top-level CEOs who built lasting organizations are unusually humble and outward-focused. They tend to draw attention to the team they’re responsible for instead of their own gifts. Part of the reason for this is the major problems that exist with charismatic leaders. Journalist Chris Rhatigan inspired this list:

1. Unsustainable Growth

This kind of leader can push a team into hyper-growth. They naturally get people excited about their vision and ideas. They have the ability to inspire people, which can lead to amazing short-term gains. But hype sizzles and then fizzles. Over the long haul, slow and steady growth wins the race. Leaders who listen to their teams and make decisions that benefit the whole organization will create a sustainable growth model.

2. The Charismatic Feedback Loop

Uniquely gifted leaders may rely too much on their own talents – they lean on their ability to own a room and motivate employees. They earn accolades from everyone around them, and this positive feedback makes inertia easy. The most extreme case of this is a cult leader who exists only in tandem with his or her devotees. This can make it easy to ignore difficult problems or discuss unpopular solutions. True leaders are more concerned about the health of the organization rather than being well-liked.

3. All Style, No Substance

Sometimes, charismatic leaders are initially impressive if they have a well-crafted message. They appear to have a vision, and people are excited to follow these magnetic persons. But after a while, teammates realize little has changed. These leaders have the ability to say the right things but can’t sustain or follow through. They feel fenced in by systems and can fail morally, due to money, sex, and power. Authentic leaders keep their goals realistic and focus on creating processes or systems to achieve them.

4. Being Beyond Reproach

Another common problem for charismatic leaders is that their followers aren’t willing to question their decisions. This may be because these leaders have ignored or skirted questions in the past. Or it may be because there’s social pressure to accept these leader’s views. Either way, a culture of compliance will lead to stagnation.

The Downside of Charismatic Leadership

Ultimately, leaders are helped when they have some level of magnetism. Inspiring and motivating people in an organization is a bonus aspect of leadership. Too much of it, however, can be detrimental. I know first-hand that charismatic leaders can accumulate disproportionate amounts of influence, even power, that are unhealthy. As power goes up, accountability tends to go down. There is an upside and downside to charisma in leaders. Top leaders need to avoid exercising complete authority over their organizations. It’s critical for teams to crowdsource decision-making and break out of traditional hierarchies. Leaders who don’t possess as much charisma are forced to cultivate more and better leadership skills. Why? They can’t lean on their personalities to get things done. Put another way, lots of charisma may be a shortcut to becoming an authentic, healthy, effective leader. It’s strange but true. Charisma is overrated. It doesn’t make you a leader. It’s a cherry on top of the sundae. Not the sundae itself.

So, let’s get back to Rich, the student leader who impressed me.

Rich did not see himself as a leader. He was quiet and unassuming. He wasn’t the first to speak up in a group discussion. In fact, he often never spoke up. When he did speak, however, there was substance. I approached him and asked if he would participate in a study group and because I witnessed his insight, I challenged him to speak up. As he did, he won the respect of others. By the spring semester, I asked him to serve as an apprentice. His job would be to simply help the group leader with details and responsibilities. Rich was fabulous.  By the end of the spring, he was influencing everyone. People listened to him and readily followed his lead. I continued to invest in him as we met and cultivated his gifts over the next semester. But I let him be his own kind of leader, not an imitation of someone else. He was authentic. He authored his own life and leadership style.

By the time I moved away from San Diego, Rich was in charge of all the study group leaders. This student, who never saw himself as a leader, was leading leaders.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against charisma. 

I’m simply saying far too often, this ingredient prevents students from stepping up and leading in their own way. If I have to choose, I’ll take slow and steady character over a magnetic personality. Peter Ajisafe said, “Charisma without character is a postponed calamity.” Let’s teach students that leadership begins with character, not charisma.

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Busting a Common Myth Preventing Students From Leading