Charismatic Leadership and Personality Cults - Fun While They Last
#evolve Magazine
July 18, 2021

I’ve worked for and with, and have been around a number of very impressive people with considerable skills, gifts and charm. But not all had the “IT” factor — that indescribable but palpable and effortlessly exuded gravitational force that draws every eye in the room. Max Weber defined charisma as “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with exceptional powers or qualities.”

Truly charismatic leadership is rare, and while it can be exciting, even intoxicating to bask in the radiance of such an extraordinary person, it’s not always as it appears or what it’s cracked up to be. And it’s seldom a sustainable formula for business success.

Years ago, I got to see these magical properties up close. I was Robin to Dr. David March’s Batman. We were partners in a tech startup that he led and funded. David was 38 at the time, a Harvard-educated physician who never practiced a day in his life and, thanks to his family’s wealth, had the means to go wherever his active imagination and larger-than-life energy and appetites took him.

David wasn’t physically prepossessing, but his background, incandescent intelligence and easy charm lit up any space he walked into — from a roomful of highly accomplished investors, lawyers and engineers leaning into his every word, to a small gathering at my apartment on Long Island, when he strode in with his latest girlfriend, wearing mud-splashed jodhpurs, and announced that he just bought a horse.

David’s brand of charismatic leadership was effective. To a point. On the plus side, it got us meetings, people took us seriously and investors opened their checkbooks.

On the negative side, it took on a visionary quality that allowed several of his half-baked ideas to go unchecked. More than once he’d spiral off into the ether, seeing only what David could see, later to realize that it was the pain killers speaking (those equestrian spills took a toll).

I have also seen charismatic leadership edge into a kind of personality cult. In my experience, though, not all personality cults necessarily form around a genuinely charismatic personality.

I saw this recently with a company whose founder died just shy of his 40th birthday. By all accounts, Jonathan was a brilliant man and strong leader, beloved by one and all. Having met him, however, I wouldn’t exactly call him charismatic, but rather the sum total of his many admirable qualities.

About a year after he died, I was asked to review the company’s updated timeline, from its inception to the current day. Just about every milestone was laid at the feet of Jonathan and his singular brilliance, his penetrating vision, his super-human resolve in the face of obstacles that would daunt lesser men. When my respectful suggestion that they make the post-Jonathan era a tad less Jonathan-centric was met with uncomprehending silence, I quickly changed the subject to oft-told tales of Jonathan’s astonishing feats of strength, endurance and derring-do.

The initial impetus for this column was to draw a line between charismatic leadership (good) and personality cults (bad). But I realized that, in most cases, the distinctions are vanishingly small, particularly if measured by the likely outcomes: disappointment, shattered illusions, months of de-programming.

Coming out of it is not unlike emerging from a consuming crush — you regret all the time and energy wasted, but if you’re smart you guard against it happening again by looking for signs: Does he/she appoint strong people, encourage/recognize good ideas, acknowledge mistakes and course correct, evince the barest flickers of self-effacement and humor?

Most of us have at one point fallen for a magnetic leader. Some fall in love, others fall in line. But in the end it’s the same: The longer you’re on your back, the harder it is to get back on your feet.