How Charismatic Do You Need to Be?

  • I came across this old (2004) article from Harvard Business Review titled “What Makes an Effective Executive” that propositions that being charismatic is not really the key to being a great leader with Harry Truman being the number one example.


    It listed these 8 traits of effective leaders:

    1. They ask, “What needs to be done?”

    2. They ask, “What is right for the enterprise?”

    3. They develop action plans

    4. They take responsibility for decisions

    5. They take responsibility for communicating

    6. They are focused on opportunities rather than problems.

    7. They run productive meetings.

    8. They think and say “we” rather than “I.”

    Thinking about this took me back more than a decade to when I was leading a spring mission trip where a bunch of high school and junior high school kids were doing a bunch of service projects at a school in Arizona that served Native American kids.   I had a bunch of very committed adults helping with the trip including a school teacher who was an amazing charismatic leader that all this kids loved.  


    One afternoon one of the teens came to me and asked . . . “What’s it like to be leading a trip like this and not be as popular as Mr. Johnson.  It was in the moment kind of a kick in the gut, but he just wanted to know.  It was not meant to be mean.


    I came up with what I am sure was a really vanilla, “how do I get out of this situation as fast as I can” answer.   


    On reflection two things became clear:

    1. He was way more charismatic than I was

    2. I was a way more effective leader than he was


    This list largely describes what made me different from him.  I had a goal and I kept at it day after day, week after week, month after month.  Over the years I have gotten to know a bunch of charismatic people.  Some are amazing leaders who accomplish fantastic things and many more are just charismatic but have largely wasted that talent.   


    I have also known many people who are amazing leaders but not particularly charismatic and they look a lot like that list.


    It reinforces in my mind that great leaders come in lots of shapes and sizes and only a small percentage of them are charismatic.