By: Steve Denning
We can learn much about the current leadership implications of charisma from the life of one of the most charismatic individuals of the twentieth century: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. (Mahatma, meaning “great soul,” was an honorific title he acquired.)
Gandhi led an extraordinary life, fusing the ascetic ideals of the ancient Hindu religion and culture with some revolutionary ideas for generating political change through satyagraha: “force born of truth and love or nonviolence.”
His efforts were successful in mobilizing the Indian population of South Africa and then in leading the entire Indian nation to independence. His example, preaching truth and nonviolence, inspired leaders in many countries around the world to emulate his example. When he was assassinated in 1948, practically the whole world mourned him. He was compared to Socrates, to Buddha, to Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi.
His life has been the subject of hundreds of biographies. Jawaharlal Nehru has written: “No man can write a real life of Gandhi, unless he is as a big as Gandhi.” He was a man “whose eyes were often full of laughter and yet were pools of infinite sadness.” He was “a pilgrim on a quest for Truth, quiet, peaceful, determined, fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of the consequences.” Gandhi “invested many of his gestures with special symbolic meaning, and at one point or another somebody has sanctified his every action and utterance, so that today in India—and elsewhere—there exists not one Gandhi, but hundreds of Gandhis.”
Before accomplishments, charisma does not exist
Yet the extraordinary charismatic qualities that were so obvious in Gandhi after his achievements were apparently invisible to others before those achievements. He was a short, thin, and sickly child. He was an indifferent student who found schoolwork hard. He envied the big, strong boys who were good at sports like cricket and gymnastics, at which he performed poorly.
A photo of him at the time shows not so much eyes that were pools of infinite sadness as eyes displaying a hunted, apprehensive look. With his large nose, he was an ugly young man, something that he eventually became proud of, claiming to be “the ugliest man in the world.” He was married by his parents at the age of thirteen to a girl his own age, and, already demonstrating a healthy sexual appetite, consummated the marriage that night. He was a jealous and imperious young husband, forbidding his young wife to go anywhere, while declaring that he found her company tedious.
Having decided to become a lawyer, he opted to pursue, not a rigorous legal education in India, but the path of an expensive dilettante, reading for the English bar in London, an approach that required no coursework and involved passing simple examinations that were practically a formality.
In England, Gandhi set out to become an Englishman. He bought Western clothes. He took up ballroom dancing. He took up elocution lessons for a while, but eventually concluded that his efforts to become an Englishman were futile. Instead he spent much of his time pursuing various vegetarian causes, “to the irritation of practically everyone, Indian or English, whom he came to know.”
After three years in London, he returned to India, and he set up a legal practice, first in Rajkot and then in Bombay. When he finally obtained a case to argue, he stood in front of the court and couldn’t think of a single question; he had to sit down and give the brief to a colleague. After that, he didn’t get another case.
On one occasion, he interceded on behalf of his brother, who was angling for the prime ministership of the tiny princely kingdom of Porbandar. Apparently his brother had offended the British political agent on whom his career depended, and so Gandhi, who had casually met the agent in London, took up his brother’s cause. The agent told Gandhi that if his brother felt that he had been wronged, he could apply through the proper channels. When Gandhi persisted, the agent told him to leave. And when Gandhi continued to argue, the agent had his servant take hold of Gandhi and throw him physically out of his office.
At this point in his life, Gandhi was the very antithesis of charisma. He was unattractive in appearance. He was graceless in manners. He was lacking in tact. In private, he was annoyingly persistent. In public, he was too shy to open his mouth. He was unable to earn an income as a lawyer. If his eyes were “pools of infinite sadness,” there is no record of people noticing it at the time.
Charisma is the result of accomplishments
The fact is that Gandhi’s charisma was the result, not the cause, of his accomplishments.
No one sensed an scintilla of charisma in Gandhi until after he had made up his mind what he wanted to do with his life, which occurred after an incident of racial discrimination in South Africa: he was holding a first-class ticket, but he was thrown off the train by a white guard at the request of a white man, and left shivering in a dark waiting room.
Within a week of the incident, he convened a meeting of the Indians of Pretoria and delivered an address on white discrimination. It was his first public speech. Passion for the cause dissolved his shyness. He found the words needed to communicate his commitment. And so began a long journey as an agent of change, first in South Africa and then in India. It was only after he had success in influencing people that people began to think of Gandhi as having charisma.
Radical management implications
One of the deep-seated psychological problems of 20th Century management is the idea that a leader or manager needs to have charisma. This leads to Napoleonic behaviors which are a combination of bombast and willful blindness to problems. Exemplars include Robert McNamara (president of Ford [F] as well as the World Bank and Secretary of Defense), or Harold Geneen, president of ITT [ITT] or even Jack Welch at GE [GE].
A key facet of the ongoing and necessary transition from 20th Century management to the radical management needed in the 21st Century is the recognition that the customer is now the boss, not the manager. As a result, the manager needs to become an enabler of the staff, not a mini-Napoleon who sets out to control individuals.
Scott Cook at Intuit
Thus in a recent HBR article, Scott Cook at Intuit admits spending some time as CEO of Intuit [INTU] trying to be the heroic CEO. He had wanted to be powerful visionary like Steve Jobs at Apple [AAPL]—design driven, innovation intensive, wowing consumers year in and year out with fantastic offerings. He wanted to be someone with charisma. He had missed the fact that Steve Jobs’s current charisma is largely the result of his accomplishments at Apple since 2000.
Cook eventually discovered that he didn’t have to be the sole heroic figure with charisma, making all the decisions. One day in 2007, midway through a five-hour PowerPoint presentation, he realized that he wasn’t the heroic visionary that he had dreamed of being. When he started becoming an enabler of self-organizing teams and providing them with clear line of sight to the customer, he found that they were able to come up with the innovations that he needed.
The role of leaders and managers in the 20th Century is thus to inspire teams to achieve great things. If their teams succeed, the leaders will in due course acquire charisma from those accomplishments.
Just as making money is the result, not the goal, of radical management, so charisma is the result, not the goal, of leadership.