“We need a charismatic leader for our not-for-profit!” Do you?


By Chris Gandy

Recently we were asked by the Chair of a mid-sized not-for-profit to help with the recruitment of a new CEO.

The new person, “Must have charisma in spades – just like their predecessor!”… we were instructed.

Fairly clear instructions. But before we proceeded we had a chat about this much vaunted trait of charisma and whether it was really required by the organisation at this time.

Certainly there seem to be a disproportionate number of charismatic leaders in the Australian not-for-profit sector (and we maybe will muse about why this is so in another post) and they often bring many benefits to their organisations, including:

Vision – They convey the impression that they know exactly what the future of the organisation should look like. Not only can they see the future but can clearly articulate this to others and excite them to be part of it.

Solutions – Many charismatic leaders step into the breach at a time of crisis. History throws up some examples of this on the world stage and there are many equivalents in the sector. Leaders in this situation exude confidence and a dogged determination to do.

Energy – These leaders are goers and often the organisation is driven forward through their absolute commitment.  Many are like Eveready Bunnies leaving other flagging in their wake.

Economic – Interestingly, because of their confidence, energy and drive, charismatic leaders often don’t ask for large numbers of support staff. Also, they have a way of attracting followers to join them in their mission for salaries which are often below market rates.

Trust – From a Board’s perspective what’s not to like here? The Board has a person who is committed to the cause, understands every aspect of the organisation, and is putting in 110%. So they give the leader their trust, respect and often a great deal of latitude.

Little wonder the Chairman effectively said “We want one of them again, thanks” to us.

Unfortunately there are downsides to charismatic leadership as those working for them will be well aware. Sometimes these emerge during the person’s tenure but more often it is after the person leaves that they become more obvious. These stem from….

Blind faith – Leaders with charisma have personal magnetism. This can lead to uncritical devotion from followers. Followers crave the approval of a charismatic leader and are motivated to please rather than to act based on a shared vision or values.

Centre of the universe – Often the organisation is structured so that most things must pass through the leader, and no one is ever quite certain what to expect as a reaction. The organisation loses the ability to be resilient in the face of changing realities. It’s too busy waiting for the leader to decide what to do, and believing that the leader knows best. Alternate views aren’t stifled they are just never put forward.

Relationships –The management styles of charismatic leaders are largely based on relationships not structures. They tend to recruit on this basis and not formal eligibility and suitability for a position. This may work while the leader is holding it together, but it becomes highly problematic when they leave and this network of relationships is interrupted.

Visceral – Charismatic leaders run on “gut feel. They know what to do and do it. They are not systematic and quite often see formal processes as limiting. Also why do you need processes when most of the decisions are routed through the leader? This may work while the leader is on deck in an organisation but leaves a gaping hole when they are absent for extended periods or leaves altogether.

Branding – The leader’s brand is theirs not the Cause’s. The charismatic leader is over-identified with their organisation to such an extent that the community, media, and stakeholders are more likely to know the leader than the organisation. As cause-based organisation’s brand become more and more important, it is an issue if the public have to re-create their knowledge about an organisation when the charismatic leader leaves.

So, what to do? Should you recruit a charismatic leader? Really it is a matter of “horses for courses”. Charismatic leaders can be quite effective, particularly in start-up roles. However, a Board would be well served in the longer term to imbed processes in place to manage the risks that come with these appointments.

And what did the Chairman decide to do? He took our advice and engaged an Interim CEO to give his board breathing space to reflect and properly consider the future leadership needs of their organisation.

What are your experiences of working for a charismatic leader?

About the author – Chris Gandy is a Director of Cause and Effective , providers of Coaching, Consulting, Facilitation and Interim Management services to cause-based organisations.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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