UK: CHARISMA AND HOW TO GROW IT - Professor Jay Conger is the first academic to study this most elusive ...

UK: CHARISMA AND HOW TO GROW IT - Professor Jay Conger is the first academic to study this most elusive ... - CHARISMA AND HOW TO GROW IT - Professor Jay Conger is the first academic to study this most elusive quality in depth. Formerly a 'charisma guru'

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

CHARISMA AND HOW TO GROW IT - Professor Jay Conger is the first academic to study this most elusive quality in depth. Formerly a 'charisma guru' at the University of Southern California, he now brings his knowledge to the London Business School, where he believes that many of the traits that make a successful entrepreneur can be taught.

One morning, Jim Dawson of Zebco, the world's largest fishing tackle company, walked on to the production floor of the US company's flagship manufacturing plant and put an end to the traditional time clock. It was a calculated step but still a daring one. And it was more than that. It was a charismatic action - because Dawson didn't do it with an executive memo. He did it with a crowbar. And as workers ran to witness the style of the company's new president, he ripped away a debilitating spell of labour-management strife.

When we think of charisma, we tend to think of personal style and charm, of movie stars and politicians. We rarely think of business leaders having charisma, and there are those who would argue that personality has little place in a world of hard numbers and tangible results. Yet charisma can be an important trait for people in business.

Charismatic managers are masters of motivation and superb communicators.

They seem to be the ones who are always on the lookout for opportunities and who often break the traditional rules of their industry to gain that competitive edge. By nature, they are entrepreneurial and agents of change. For example, in one of his earliest ventures, Richard Branson of Virgin Group challenged industry norms by selling discounted records through the mail. With Virgin Atlantic, he later introduced amenities for airline travellers that were outside the norm - from in-flight masseurs and fashion shows to motorcycle transportation to the airport.

In a similar fashion, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines in the US fashioned his success by seeing the car, rather than other air carriers, as his main competition, and then ditching many traditional services in favour of simplicity. On a Southwest flight there are no meals, no first-class or reserved seats, no complicated connections or fares (there are only two for each route). As a result, Southwest has the longest string of profitable years in the American airline industry.

Once charismatic leaders see an opportunity, they are very skilful at crafting a compelling business proposition or strategic vision around it. Take Jack Welch of General Electric, who in the early 1980s set out with the vision of making each GE company number one or two in its sector - and did it within the decade. Net earnings rose for 40 straight quarters and GE's stock value climbed from $12 billion ( £7.3 billion) to $58 billion.

Charisma also features in how leaders communicate their goals. They highlight what's wrong with the present and how the future vision is the most attractive and attainable alternative, despite the obstacles. While setting out their goals, charismatic leaders communicate their own motivation with high energy, persistence, unconventional behaviour, heroic deeds - even personal sacrifice. This part of the equation is crucial because people will follow someone only if they feel there is a foundation of trust. For example, they might give up important perks or privileges, or take risks that include the possible loss of their own money or of being sacked from their job.

Jim Dawson is an example. In the 1970s and 1980s, fishing tackle from Japan and Taiwan began to flood the American market. Not only were Asian products less costly, they also had important improvements in operating features and technology. Lulled by prior success, Zebco's senior management chose to ignore the competition. Moreover, management-labour relations at Zebco had disintegrated and a membership drive had succeeded in unionising the workforce. When Dawson arrived from another company, he quickly realised the magnitude of Zebco's problems, but as an outsider he faced a serious problem. His trustworthiness would be a big concern among the workforce - the very group he needed to enlist in fundamentally changing the operations.

He chose two highly visible actions to signal the end of class differences between workforce and management. First, he discontinued the reserved parking spaces for senior managers, explaining that this type of perk simply reaffirmed a management attitude that 'we are better than you'.

So, one morning he had all the secretaries of the executives park in their bosses' spaces. Reserved parking then became a reward programme called the President's Club. Anyone with a 100% attendance record - line employee or manager - won a space.

The other stroke was the destruction of the punch-clocks in the manufacturing departments - another visible barrier between workers and managers and a stark symbol of a lack of trust by management. The manner in which he removed them was as important as their removal. As the time clocks crashed to the floor, one by one, workers gathered to witness it. Dawson used the drama of the event to send a clear and emotional message that he was on the side of the workers.

These actions allowed him quickly to establish his credibility with the workforce. He demonstrated in deeds that equality was to be the norm in the plant. He was willing to forgo his own perks for it. In return, the workforce provided him with concessions that soon dramatically improved both productivity and quality. Production efficiencies increased threefold.

The company won the Wal-Mart vendor-of-the-year award, distinguishing itself among 8,000 suppliers, and subsequently went on to win it a second time.

Charismatic leaders are also drawn to staging events that send a clear message about their company. Part of what Branson seeks to convey about the Virgin Group is its sense of youthfulness and adventure. He models these characteristics in his own playful attitude and risk-taking adventures.

His attempts to circle the globe in hot-air balloons and his crossing of the Atlantic in a powerboat reveal elements of the company's character.

Finally, charismatic leaders pay a great deal of attention to motivating their troops. Branson, for example, preserves an entrepreneurial atmosphere by splitting business units up as they grow too large. The units are led by managing directors who have considerable freedom to run the businesses as they see fit, and they are given equity positions. In addition, employees with attractive ideas for new ventures are provided with seed capital and ownership. As a result, many of the Virgin companies are the product of employee ideas.

Now the big question is whether you are born with charisma or whether you can develop it. I believe you can develop elements of it. For example, you can take courses to improve your speaking skills. You can learn to stage events that send powerful messages. You can learn to think more critically about the status quo and its shortcomings. You can do more on a daily basis to motivate your team. What you simply cannot learn is how to be passionate about what you do. You have to discover that for yourself, and passion is a big part of what drives a charismatic leader.

It is also what motivates and inspires those who work for the charismatic leader.

In addition, it takes an inner courage to be unconventional and a risk-taker. So if you want to become a charismatic leader, first fall in love with what you do. Then as your awareness deepens about your business, look for the unexploited opportunities. Once you find these, start to craft compelling goals to take advantage of them. But make sure you describe them in ways that will bring others along with you. Do some things that are a bit unconventional.

Take calculated risks. Show your passion in words and deeds.

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