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Always Strive to Be a Better You

Charismatic Leaders and Ego

Think for a moment of the five or six greatest leaders you've ever heard of, known, worked for, or imagined.

As you consider those leaders past and present, what are the characteristics that define them? What makes them great? Are they effective because of situational work, interpersonal dealings, general intelligence, content expertise, or perhaps a little of each? Do they possess that je ne sais quoi that we hear so much about but really don't know how to spell?

As you engaged in that quick exercise, your mind probably raced with thoughts of wonderful leaders from your own life, mixed with some great historical leaders, and sprinkled with a few outstanding leaders about whom you have heard but know very little. That last group probably consisted of rather charismatic personalities -- Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca or former Boston Celtics basketball coach Red Auerbach, for example.

Some might caution us against blindly following charismatic leaders -- those who can woo the room, whip the crowd into frenzy, and entice an emotional reaction out of any situation. Michael Fullan, for instance, warns us that "Charismatic leaders inadvertently often do more harm than good because, at best, they provide episodic improvement followed by frustrated or despondent dependency," and, worse still, "they are role models who can never be emulated."

We respectfully add a caveat, by cautioning against the blind following of any leader, charismatic or otherwise.

And, in defense of all our charismatic colleagues out there leading schools and realizing tremendous success, charisma is not a personality deficit.

Sometimes a powerful, suave, or engaging personality is exactly what the situation dictates. When leading soldiers into dangerous battle, a field marshal must rouse the troops to follow. When entering an important fiscal period, a brokerage manager must inspire the agents to increase their productivity. And when facing increased public accountability and higher standards, school superintendents must rally their masses to refocus on the mission and vision of student achievement. Principals, in their school buildings, are no different.

charisma -- The Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as "the power to inspire devotion and enthusiasm," and that is precisely what leaders aim to do: to create a following.

Charisma is a positive human characteristic. A leader who possesses it has an extraordinary ability to connect with his or her followers, link them to the goal, and motivate them to pursue the common vision. If a charismatic leader can use that interpersonal skill while remaining focused on the correct path, even as it changes underfoot, he or she will have the most vital commodity in leadership: followers. Or, more aptly stated in the educational scheme: partners on the journey.


Just as charisma can play an important role in leadership, so can ego. Leaders must not only want to be in the position of responsibility, they must believe that their impact is required in order to achieve success. In The One Thing You Need to Know, Marcus Buckingham states, "From all my interviews with effective leaders I cannot think of one example in which the person lacked this craving to be at the helm, charting the course ahead."

[content block] That strong ego cannot go unbridled, of course. Effective leaders find a way to channel their egos into a productive outlet for the organization.

Jim Collins explains that the truly exceptional leaders, his Level 5 leaders, "are incredibly ambitious -- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves."

The problems arise when the leaders confuse themselves with the vision and put their own desires ahead of their organizations. We have seen this in recent history in the cases of Enron's high-profile corporate greed and Martha Stewart gone awry. In less public settings, we've heard about leaders who got "too big for their britches." We've all probably known or worked for an employer who let his own needs outweigh the good of the whole. The real danger occurs, however, when followers become so enthralled with a leader that they follow without thinking critically about the leader's vision.


What does this mean for us as educational leaders? Simply put, since we acknowledge that leaders who are charismatic and self-confident (the politically-correct term for possessing a strong ego) are likely to be effective in their leadership, then we ought to cultivate those traits. Or, at the very least, not try to hide them.

We can learn to woo, even if it isn't our innate strength.

We can project an air of confidence, for our conviction is echoed in the teaching staffs that depend on us.

We ought not to shy away from our naturally strong ego and urge to stand in the front of the crowd.

We shouldn't pretend that charming others is a sin.

None of that is wrong if, above all else, we remain steadfastly true to our mission.

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
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