Never make a pretty woman your wife, or why charismatic leaders are overrated

Posted on March 30, 2012


NOTE: While a post on leadership is not what you would call a procurement topic along the same lines of one written about spend management or strategic outsourcing, it nonetheless has a very important impact on an organization including those of us who have occupied the hallowed offices of a purchasing department.

For this reason I thought that I would share the following post from my PI Window on Business Blog . . .

Despite what you are suggesting with this article, according to research by Jim Collins and in particular referencing his book Good To Great, charismatic leaders are amongst the least effective in terms of sustainable corporate success.

While Collins’ work and findings are supported by actual data, your article is more anecdotal, which leads to an obvious question . . . why is there such an emphasis placed on charisma if at best the results or success is only short term?

my response to the March 29th, 2012 Fast Company article “Cultivating Charisma: How Personal Magnetism Can Help (Or Hurt) You At Work” by Arnie Cooper

Back in the days when I inhabited the corporate boardroom as a president of a publicly traded company we were often asked to pose for the obligatory company photo.

I had never given much thought to this exercise beyond seeing it as a nuisance or necessary pain as I believed that the measure of an executive ultimately came down to bottom-line performance and maximizing shareholder value. Or to put it another way, and in direct contrast to Billy Crystal’s lampooning of Fernando Lamas with the words “it is better to look good than to feel good,” shareholders would not care one wit if I had a natty suit and combed hair if their shares failed to realize a tidy profit.

Now one might reasonably assume at this point that such words would reflect the mindset of an individual who’s personality resembles that of either drying paint or conversely a bristled brush, with looks that instantly brings to mind the first picture in a before and after comparison. While I will leave it to you who know me to reach your own conclusions regarding yours truly – although I will say in my defense that a fellow executive did during one photo shoot, make the statement that he hated photogenic people like me because it made his shot look like a bad school picture, the truth is that I have never counted personal popularity as an important executive attribute.

Now do not get me wrong here, I am not saying that performance excuses boorish or insensitive behavior as it doesn’t. What I am saying is that when the chips are down and you have your back pressed against the wall, and in more instances than not, the popularity-oriented person is usually the first to fold under pressure and cut bait, while the earnest worker is the one most likely to hang in there and make a meaningful contribution to a successful outcome.

If you wanna be happy For the rest of your life,

Never make a pretty woman your wife,

So from my personal point of view, Get an ugly girl to marry you.

From the song “If You Want To Be Happy (For The Rest Of Your Life)

So here is the question . . . can you be both charismatic and consistently effective over a long period of time?

As charisma is usually reflected in popularity I would have to say no. In fact just this morning 5 times bestselling author Larry Winget shared the following on his Facebook Page that would tend to support this view, when he observed that a guaranteed way to avoid criticism was to “Say nothing . . . Be Nothing . . . Do Nothing!”

Leave it to the author of gems such as Your Kids Are Your Own Fault and People Are Idiots and I Can Prove It, to cut to the chase and state a strong case for substance over sizzle. The sentiment that I take from this is that if you are more interested in being popular and not stepping on anyone’s toes, then you are not likely to put yourself in the line of fire, which true leaders often have to do to achieve results.

This of course brings us back to Jim Collins who, in his book Good To Great, analyzed data to determine why some companies made the jump from being good to being great and doing so for an extended period of time. What he found was that rarely if ever did a company for example, who brought in an outside superstar, attain a level of consistent excellence, while those that developed leaders gradually and from within were in most instances the organizations that excelled over the long run. The implications are interesting in that one might conclude that organic leadership reflects the steadfast nature of the individual whose sure but steady rise through the ranks speaks to a persistence of both purpose and intent that has little to do with a “How To Succeed In Business” meteoric ascension based simply on saying the right things and wearing the right clothes.

While there is no doubt that the sizzle factor will only carry you so far, for so long what I find interesting are the insights provided by the best branding experts and coaches who while not ignoring dress and providing a practical understanding of protocol, focus a great deal of their effort on the person themselves. Specifically, this inside out probing approach is instrumental in success in that beyond just making a good first impression, understanding how to behave and navigate the at times complex political landscape of the corporate world opens the doors that allow you to demonstrate your skill sets.

It is therefore this balanced view of charismatic tendencies or qualities that properly aligns itself with substantive capability that creates the kind of well-rounded or complete executive that all of us should strive to become, whether as the head of a major corporation or our own one-person enterprise.


Posted in: Commentary