The Dangers of Charisma

I have often written here about the challenges of micromanagement and the limitations it puts on effectiveness and sustainability. The poster boy for micromanagement is Sisyphus. I cannot tell you how many executives have described their job as being like “that guy who pushes a rock up the hill.” Pushing a large stone up the hill forever, without either an end or a break, was indeed Sisyphus’ punishment in the afterlife.

But this month I want to visit another mythological personality that we see in business who is equally dangerous: Orpheus.

Orpheus is not nearly as well known as Sisyphus, but archetypally they are opposites. Sisyphus is all task. Orpheus is all relationship. He was a singer and master of the lyre. Orpheus could convince anyone to do anything. It was said that when he sang, rocks would listen, rivers would stop flowing to pay attention and animals would lie down to hear. He is one of the few characters in all of mythology to go to the underworld to get something and come back out alive. But while he could influence anyone to do almost anything, he was unable to complete what he started even when it was really important to him and those around him.

We saw a lot of Orpheus-style leaders during the dot-com boom. They could sell ideas that were unformed and launch companies on the strength of a vision and other people’s money. But for all of the successes that grew from that venture-funded frenzy, many more dollars were lost to CEOs who could not organize a child’s birthday party, much less a high-growth enterprise.

Just as the micromanager’s singular focus on control and task management can choke productivity, a complete lack of structure and reliance on charisma can be an expensive challenge to success. Jim Collins often writes about the challenges of leaders whose credibility is built on charisma rather than solid managerial capacity. Oddly, in this time of economic challenge, we are seeing a resurgence of the Orphic leader.

At the request of the board of directors of a mid-tier company, I recently finished an assessment of a CEO who is a great example of this phenomenon. Although the board had for years been very confident in the CEO’s leadership, newer directors were beginning to question what they were seeing in performance metrics.

In the end, it became clear that the board had not been monitoring fundamentals for governance because they liked and trusted the CEO. The same was true for the other senior executives, who knew that some attention was needed but were willing to forgive a lot out of loyalty and a strong affiliation with the vision that the boss was pursuing.

Meanwhile, at levels below, vice presidents and managers showed serious concern. They were unclear about how the company was going to make the vision reality and often were at odds about a way forward and where the needed resources would come from. As a result, several strategic initiatives were stalled, and turnover in the ranks at this level had increased over the previous few years, with some of the best talent leaving the organization. Exit interview notes showed a frustration based on an inability to execute what were good ideas owing to the lack of direction and resources to execute.

Orpheus and Sisyphus are not exactly opposite sides of the same coin, but the two leadership styles are very instructive. A balance of task and relational capacities serves a leader and the organization that he leads. All of us are going to be naturally better at one than the other, but a relative balance gives a leader more access to the style most useful for any situation. And, of course, here is one more example of an axiomatic observation I have made here many times: Any asset overused becomes a liability.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June 25, 2012.