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The Myth Of The ‘Great’ and ‘Charismatic’ Leader

The classical & most pervasive thought-line from the world of business & management puts the heaviest emphasis on the ‘great leadership’ as the single-most distinguishing variable in the success of great companies of the world.  Yes--in a way, this seems correct also.  BECAUSE… the great leadership makes a great difference to the fortunes of any company.

We need to understand that great leaders display high level of persistence.  They overcome significant obstacles.  They attract dedicated people to the organization.  They influence group of people toward the achievement of goals.  They play key roles in guiding their companies through crucial episodes in their history.

But—and this is a crucial point—that there is no reason to believe the hypothesis that great leadership is the distinguishing variable during the ‘critical, formative stages’ of the good companies.

If you find that your company is into its formative stages, then rest assured—

a high-profile, charismatic leader (or style) is absolutely not required to successfully shape a good company.

William Mcknight 2There is a very fine example.  Consider ‘William McKnight’.  Do you know who he is or was?  (In fact, I also never heard of him till I read about him from one of the sources of this article).  He would not stand out in anybody’s mind as one of the great business leaders of 20th century.  Would he?  Can you describe his management style?  Have you read his biography?  So, you (including me) are like most people who know little or nothing about him.  He very rarely appeared in the media, journals, magazines etc.  McKnight guided a company for 52 long years—as general manager (1914-1929), chief executive (1929-1949), and chairman (1949-1966), but hardly anybody knew much about him.  Yet, the company he guided earned fame and admiration with the business people around the world.  Want to know the name of this company?   It carries the revered name of ‘Minnesota, Mining and Manufacturing Company’—or 3M for short.  Yes, it was 3M.  3M is famous; McKnight is not.  He never was.

There was no evidence to suggest that he had a highly charismatic leadership style.  Instead he was found to be a soft-spoken, gentle man.  He was found to be a good listener, humble, modest, slightly stooped, unobtrusive, quiet, thoughtful, and serious.

William McKnight is not the only significant chief executive who was nowhere like the archetypal model of the charismatic visionary leader.  Even the Masaru Ibuka, the founder of Sony also had the reputation as being reserved, thoughtful, and introspective.  Bill Hewlett of HP was also known to be friendly, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact type, down-to-earth person.  William Procter and James Gamble of P&G—both were known to be stiff, prim, proper, and reserved—even dead pan.  Bill Allen who was the most significant CEO in the history of Boeing—was a pragmatic lawyer, rather benign in appearance with a rather shy and infrequent smile.   They all were good leaders.

If you’re a high-profile charismatic leader, it’s fine.  But if you’re not, then that’s fine, too, for you’re in good company right along with those who built companies like 3M, Sony, P&G, Boeing, HP and Merck.  Not a bad crowd.

But the point is straight and very simple.  A high-profile, charismatic leadership style is clearly not required for building an exceptional company.

The researches have pointed out that good companies need to have superb people at its leadership positions during their most crucial stages.  For, they need to do a great job of developing and promoting highly competent managerial talent from inside the company, and thereby attaining a greater continuity of excellence in those positions through multiple generations.   Perhaps the continuity of superb individuals atop good companies stems from the companies being ‘outstanding organizations’, not the other way around.

The evidence suggests that the key people at formative stages of good companies—had a stronger organizational orientation, regardless of what their personal leadership style was—charismatic or not.  But they essentially adopted one thing—an architectural or clock-building approach.

clock maker cinemagraphImagine you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or stars at any time of day or night and state the exact time and date: “It’s April 23, 1401, 2:36 A.M., and 12 seconds.” This person would be an amazing time teller, and we’d probably revere that person for the ability to tell time. But wouldn’t that person be even more amazing if, instead of telling the time, he or she built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she was dead and gone?

Leading as a charismatic visionary—a “genius with a thousand helpers”—is time telling; shaping a culture that can thrive far beyond any single leader is clock building. Searching for a single great idea on which to build success is time telling; building an organization that can generate many great ideas over a long period of time is clock building.

Enduring greatness requires clock building.



This article is written & published by Rajneesh Kumar, General Manager at Luminis Consulting Services Pvt Ltd, India. He can be reached at Email:  and/or Linkedin: https://in.linkedin.com/in/rajneeshkumar1 

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