Charismatic Leadership

Films, and islands, and drones! Oh my! Leading amid chaos

Over the last week protests and riots have erupted in a swath across the globe from Tunisia to China. The two flash points have been the display of an Arabic version of a trailer for the movie Innocence of Muslims and the sale of the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

Senkaku Islands

The Innocence of Muslims is an overdubbed, poorly crafted film which sadly portrays the prophet Muhammad as a fool, a fake, and a womanizer. While individuals in the western world may find the film repugnant, they also understand the value of freedom of expression. Those of us raised in a culture where freedom of expression is appreciated can easily shrug off such poor attempts at inciting strong religious emotions.

However, in cultures where the Muslim faith is regarded more seriously—and freedom of expression is not necessarily so highly valued, at least on religious topics—it may be felt that protests are in order. Unfortunately, for individuals waiting for an excuse to protest and riot, faster than a speeding drone, they’ll be on the bandwagon.

The Senkaku islands (Diaoyudao in Chinese) have been in dispute between China and Japan ever since oil was discovered in 1968 under their surrounding seas. The government of Japan recently purchased the islands from a private Japanese family and this action has inflamed both the Chinese government and citizens. Two factors are likely in play, the desire for the oil resources and a continued resentment against the Japanese for the atrocities committed in China between 1931 and 1945.

So let’s bring this back into the world of leadership we live in every day. I find an analog for these global events to be situations where the entire team or organization is working from a morale deficit. These may be situations where massive layoffs or a traumatic incident has taken place. In such cases there are three things you can do—allow a period of grief and bring closure to the past, motivate the team toward the common goal, and keep the focus moving forward.

As humans we find it comforting to acknowledge our grief and to apply ritual to bring closure to unfortunate events. All cultures I know of, including primitive cultures, perform a ritual for the loss of a tribe or family member. And so it should be for your situation. Acknowledge the loss, discuss it and decide what you need to do to put it to rest. Then move on.

Focusing on a common goal can work to motivate the team as well as bring the focus away from internal pain. The parallel to this is the way savvy and despotic leaders of countries have used the ploy of attacking an outside enemy in order to deflect the spotlight. Working toward the common goal is a motivational tool all leaders should utilize.

Lastly, the universe is a forward-moving energy which never slows or ceases. Feel that energy and use your creativity to make it palpable to all team members. Work to get them on the bus and for the bus to move relentlessly forward.

There is no time to wallow in the past. Moments may arise where we as leaders must encourage a team member or two to make a decision—remain stuck in the past or move forward with the team. In my view it’s an easy decision. Let’s hop on the bus and get moving!


  • Acknowledge the loss or trauma and bring it to closure
  • Focus on the common goal
  • Keep the energy and focus on moving forward

Keywords: leadership, trauma, grief, protests, riots, Innocence of Muslims, Senkaku islands, Diaoyudao islands, ritual, energy

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The Leadership Style of Osama bin Laden

Last week, on the one year anniversary of the fatal raid of Osama bin Laden’s house, a set of documents was released providing us additional insight into the mind of this famed terrorist. While certainly a despicable character, I find his charisma and longevity remarkable. Let’s take a look at his approach.

Osama bin Laden


Osama bin Laden had a clear and consistent vision—attack America. He viewed the United States as an immoral nation, full of homosexuality, gambling, alcohol, and an unacceptable alliance with Israel.

Loosely allied terrorist groups frequently adopted this mission and expanded it to include local governments. This caused bin Laden quite a bit of consternation. He made a considerable effort to moderate these more extreme groups. In this sense he was a moderate.

He admonished rogue groups who reinterpreted ancient Islamic law regarding collateral damage in the event of an attack into enemy territory. While Islamic law may allow this only in extreme circumstances, these regional groups considered it acceptable to inflict casualties to innocent bystanders, including Muslims during “normal” operations.


As these regional groups adopted more radical terrorist tactics bin Laden attempted to persuade them to come back into the fold and moderate their behavior. Surprisingly, based upon the materials I have examined, it seems that he did not attempt to use coercion or punishment as tools in this regard. Other al Qaeda leaders wanted to take more polar positions with these errant groups, either distancing themselves or bringing them under their wing in order to broaden the reach of al Qaeda central.


Osama bin Laden’s journey from country to country has been well-documented. He fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, then returned to his home country of Saudi Arabia from which he was expelled. He chose to live in Sudan and continue to build a network of terror. Pressured to leave that country, he boarded a chartered flight back to Afghanistan. Upon his return he struck up a friendship with Mullah Omar and began to establish the fighter training camps. Each stop along bin Laden’s journey he adapted to the local culture and developed a strong network of allies.


In order to execute successful terrorist attacks significant training is necessary and bin Laden knew this. He invested both time and money in people and equipment. The September 11, 2001 attacks are a prime example of meticulous plans executed well.


From the beginning, Osama bin Laden felt that discipline and a code of conduct were necessary. The al Qaeda manual obtained in a raid on a Manchester, England house reveals a number of values and behaviors demanded from all members. These included patience, a calm personality, a commitment to the organization, and the Islamic faith.

And so we can get a better picture of Osama bin Laden the leader. Far from a feckless leader, he developed a vision and remained steadfast in it. He adapted well to contrary events, trained his people, and demanded the best of his men.

Osama bin Laden: loathsome—yes. A successful leader—yes, unfortunately.


  • Maintain a clear and consistent vision
  • Use power wisely and effectively
  • Remain adaptable, able to adjust to changes in outside forces
  • Invest in training for your people
  • Communicate well to assure alignment of everyone in the organization

Keywords: leadership, vision, power, adaptability, training, alignment


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The Visionary Leadership of Fred Smith

Fred Smith, Chairman and CEO of FedEx Corporation, has recently been making the rounds promoting his vision of all electric and hybrid electric vehicles in addition to the promotion of favorable tax and regulation codes, training, education, and free trade. Smith has always been a visionary, from his days at Yale writing a business proposal to deliver packages quickly to his current political activity promoting positive change to help the US economy and his company.

While other leaders sit back and point fingers or complain about problems, Fred Smith takes the time to discern the issues, dig deep into the heart of the matter, formulate a strategy, and then promote it both internally and externally. His energy is palpable. Upon hearing and reading his words I feel a profound energy moving all of us forward.

FedEx Express Plane

Under his leadership FedEx has recently pioneered the first commercial hybrid delivery trucks, tested fuel cell delivery vehicles, purchased lower fuel consuming airplanes, and set aggressive fuel efficiency targets. Such visionary leadership has grown the company from zero to almost $40B in 40 years.

As I have mentioned before, vision is one of the components of charismatic leadership. Research has also shown the value of vision in organizational growth.

So this begs the question regarding the vision for your team. If you have a vision, how was it crafted? Did the team provide input? Your superiors? Creating a vision does not have to be a complicated process.

My view is that vision work involves three steps: discernment, crystallization, and institutionalization.

Discerning a compelling vision for your team requires input from many sources, including team members, customers, industry analysts, and superiors. Gather as much information as possible regarding your field and begin working with core team members, if not all of them.

As you sift through all of your data look for themes and trends. Look for what is feasible within the amount of risk your organization is willing to take. Prepare several alternatives and see how they read with team members as well as customers. Once you find the most motivating creation, put a stake in the ground with your proclamation. Be confident in this vision.

Once you have solidified the vision communicate it widely and build your teamwork around the vision. Make the vision a part of your institution. Create narratives and stories around it, for it can truly become the key to your success.


  • Crafting a vision involves three steps: discernment, crystallization, and institutionalization
  • What is the vision for your team?
  • How has the vision for your team positively or negatively impacted their performance?
  • How can you make your vision more compelling and motivational?

Keywords: leadership, vision, charismatic leadership


  • Bass, B. M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19–31.
  • Baum, J. R., Locke, E. A., & Kirkpatrick, S. A. (1998). A longitudinal study of the relation of vision and vision communication to venture growth in entrepreneurial firms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(1), 43–54.
  • Bennis, W. G., & Biedermann, P. W. (1997). Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Perseus Books.
  • Dionne, S. D., Yammarino, F. J., Atwater, L. E., & Spangler, W. D. (2004). Transformational leadership and team performance. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 17(2), 177-193.
  • Kirkpatrick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1996). Direct and indirect effects of three core charismatic leadership components on performance and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(1), 36–51.
  • Larwood, L., Falbe, C. M., Kriger, M. P., & Miesing, P. (1995). Structure and meaning of organizational vision. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 740-769.
  • Westley, F. R., & Mintzberg, H. (1988). Profiles of strategic vision: Levesque and Iacocca. In J. A. Conger & R. N. Kanungo (Eds.), Charismatic leadership: The elusive factor in organizational effectiveness (pp. 161-212). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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President Obama Lays the Vision

As if unrolling a tapestry, last week President Obama laid out a remake of Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech from 1910. Some call the President’s speech a populist appeal. I don’t care so much if it is or isn’t, but I do care to find out if we can sift through the speech to glean a few leadership tidbits.

In the speech we see clear signs of charismatic leadership. President Obama lays out the vision—fair rules, superior education, and a strong middle class developing and manufacturing innovative products for global consumption. He states, “We should be known for creating and selling products all around the world that are stamped with three proud words: Made in America.”

Secondly, he works to build a bond with his supporters. He does this by reiterating the pain they’ve felt through declining fortunes and echoing their hope for a better future. The speech is a rallying cry to pull together. Will members of each side of the political divide listen and pay heed? I doubt it.

I frequently tell people that we, as humans respond to pain. The current pain is not great enough for the politicians. When it does become significant, when a catastrophic event takes place then they will pull together.

In the meantime, whether you’re conservative or liberal, listen to the President’s speech or read a transcript. Look for his vision and how he builds a bond. I think you’ll find a few nuggets in there.


• Charismatic leadership characteristic #1: lay out a compelling vision
• Charismatic leadership characteristic #2: build a bond with your followers
• Humans respond to pain

Keywords: charismatic leadership

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Bridging Gaps of Congressional Proportion

Congressional approval ratings have hit a new low with intractable parties at both ends of the spectrum and a chasm between. This is an excellent lesson in the need for leadership to build bonds, or what we call cohesion in the world of psychology.

Let’s reflect for a moment when an even greater fissure ran through our country, literally, during the American Civil war from 1861 to 1865. After six states joined in 1861 to form the Confederate States of America and secede from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln was forced to declare war in an attempt to reunite the country. In addition, Lincoln’s presidential campaign was a struggle, winning the Republican nomination against bitter rivals William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

President Lincoln needed to mend rifts between the Union and Confederacy states, between slaveholders and those against slavery, and between rivals in his own party who wanted him to take a tougher stand for or against slavery. With deft political skill Lincoln brought the rivals Seward, Chase, and Bates as well as three former Democrats into his inner circle, won their allegiance and harnessed their talents to help reunite the country. A moderate, Lincoln took flak from all sides, yet succeeded in gaining popular support for his moderate stances and intransigent position against slavery.

Whether healing rifts of national proportions or those within your local team the concepts are the same. The psychology research on cohesion, the ability for individual team members to work harmoniously toward the same goal (task cohesion) and build social bonds (social cohesion) shows a positive correlation with performance.

So think about how well the individuals on your team are working toward their task and how well they truly enjoy being together. If close working relationships are lacking it’s time to earn your keep. Sit down with your perceived enemies and work to turn them into allies. Focus all individuals on your team to work productively on the important tasks and engage everyone in building social bonds.

• Engage opposing individuals to align toward a unified goal
• Look for shared social ground to build bonds
• Take a stand toward a common purpose, with sensitivity to all parties, and work to resolve differences

Keywords: leadership, cohesion, bond, team, Abraham Lincoln, Congress

• Carless, S. A., & De, P., C. (2000). The measurement of cohesion in work teams. Small Group Research, 31(1), 71-88.
• Chang, A., & Bordia, P. (2001). A multidimensional approach to the group cohesion-group performance relationship. Small Group Research, 32(4), 379-405.
• Goodwin, D. K. (2005). Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.
• Griffith, T., Ketcham, H., & Roe, M. (2009). Abraham Lincoln: Life, speeches and letters. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.
• Hackman, J. R. (1990). Groups that work (and those that don’t): Creating conditions for effective teamwork. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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The Missing Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs

Many of us have mourned the loss of an American icon—Steve Jobs. He has been hailed as a technology visionary and wizard, cloaked in the ability and chutzpah to bring to market paradigm-shifting products that would annihilate his company’s existing products. There is no doubt in Steve’s ability to assimilate new technologies, mold them into cutting edge products with avant-garde design, and drive his development team to deliver the goods in a timely fashion. He was the master of focusing on a singular goal. However, that is not the most important leadership lesson we can learn from Steve.

Steve’s success at Apple can teach us a couple of different and very important lessons about leadership. First, we don’t necessarily need every single “leadership trait” to be successful. The dark side of Steve Jobs is well-documented. He was abusive and domineering, even to long-time “friends.” Steve succeeded despite his malevolent daemon. Second, Steve showed us that an extreme introvert can be a highly successful leader. He was never outgoing, but would go to great lengths to seek out an individual who might further his cause.

The phenomenal success of Steve Jobs can be attributed to a small set of skills so masterful that they overpowered his undeniable weaknesses. Steve was the quintessential charismatic leader. His idea of “making a dent in the universe” was so magnetic that it attracted skilled designers, engineers, programmers, and other professionals whom he could then bludgeon into designing and manufacturing bleeding edge products.

To generalize this lesson, we see a powerful example of an individual who is a very successful leader because his positive traits far and away overshadow his negative traits. Does this mean we should relinquish our quest to find “perfect” leaders who have a well-rounded set of leadership characteristics in favor of others who may have a small set of positive characteristics that outweigh their weaknesses? Not necessarily.

I advocate a semblance of balance in leadership characteristics with an eye toward the strengths necessary for the particular leadership position. For example, you would not want to place a strong, decisive leader over a team that is almost self-managing. To do so would likely create resentment and possibly turnover in the team. Similarly, you wouldn’t position a leader whose strength is building consensus over a team that needs a quick, remedial intervention. That team needs someone who can learn quickly and make rapid, firm decisions.

Leaders I work with frequently ask me if their shortcomings will be a problem and derail their career. I respond that it will not be a problem if they are genuinely interested in becoming an exceptional leader, gathering honest feedback from team members, and responsive to the needs of their team.

So take an intelligent approach when looking for leaders. Determine the style and elements of leadership necessary to get the specific job done and focus on a search for the type of leader that will fit that particular role.


• Determine the leadership elements necessary to successfully lead the specific team
• Don’t worry if the candidate leader is weak in some areas as long as he or she meets the minimum criteria of ethical and moral behavior
• A leader does not need to be an extrovert to be successful—clear, concise communication is what’s necessary

Keywords: leadership, charismatic leadership, abusive, introvert, extrovert, introversion, extroversion, dark side

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