Don’t confuse leadership with charisma
A successful association leader and I were visiting recently when the topic of “charismatic” nonprofit executives and leadership came up. We discussed seeing numerous employment ads for executive leadership where in almost every one “charismatic” seemed to be the key qualification sought.
It was a timely discussion. I mentioned a recent conversation with an executive recruiter.
The recruiter told me her client was looking for a charismatic leader. I couldn’t think of anyone very charismatic for the job, but I thought of several competent and highly qualified individuals I would be pleased to recommend.
I asked if her client would be willing to look at a few highly “competent” candidates instead. She was at a loss for words at first.
To give her time to think, I shared that many of the most effective leaders I have known haven’t really been very charismatic, but instead have been highly competent. They commanded respect through their skills at leadership and management, not because they had a great gift of gab.
Would she be interested in having me recommend individuals with strong leadership and management skills?
She finally said maybe, but her client was really looking for someone charismatic.
Leadership, competency and charisma are not the same thing
So I sent her a list of possible candidates, but I didn’t send her the name of the person I thought of first for the job. He is a former employee of mine, and an expert in the area of specialization of the hiring association. Despite exceptional leadership and management capability, and a pleasant personality, he is not very charismatic. He would probably not do well hosting a TV reality show, for example.
The board that hired the recruiter will miss some good candidates – maybe the best. Charisma is a fine quality for a leader to have, but it’s not a sure indicator of leadership ability or of management competency. Most nonprofit professionals probably know of examples where a charismatic figure has totally failed at management and leadership of an organization, despite an ability to mesmerize the board with a constant ooze of personality. Managing an organization and gaining leadership respect take more than charm.
As a case in point, the association leader I was speaking to when the subject arose would probably not be perceived as charismatic — not even close. Yet I would expect the staff he has managed, board members he has supported, community leaders he has worked with, and donors he has stewarded would name him among the most effective charity leaders they have ever known.