Do boring leaders make for better business results?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/gorodenkoff
Nov 28, 2022

According to Harvard business administration professor Raffaella Sadun, the collapses of FTX and Theranos and the recent turmoil at Twitter prove “boring management matters” as well as the importance of context-specific skills and the ability to influence employees.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Prof. Sadun wrote that, while management practices vary within industries, her research finds “good management” is “significantly more profitable” and embraces three facets — target-setting, incentives and monitoring.

Ms. Sadun added that, while vision and intellect are “fun to write about” and often earn CEO’s major press coverage, downplaying context-specific skills and the ability to influence an organization “make bad recruitment choices and bad investments.”

Max Weber, a German sociologist from the early 1900s, is credited with originating the terminology for the three dominant kinds of leadership styles: charismatic, bureaucratic (legal-rational) and traditional. According to Yale University, Prof. Weber believed charismatic leaders “promise change in the future for the society and also change people’s attitudes and values; in this way, charismatic authority is revolutionary in a way that traditional and legal-rational authority are not. However, charisma is unstable and deteriorates if the leader cannot produce the changes he promises or when he confronts the contradictory logics and demands of the other types of authority.”

In his 2021 book, “The Emergence of Charismatic Business Leadership,” Harvard Business School Emeritus professor Richard Tedlow showed that charisma, when combined with genuine character, can motivate employees to rethink the boundaries of what’s possible. He wrote in the book, “Charisma turns a market exchange — you work and I pay you — into a social exchange — follow me and you will be a more fulfilled human being.”

Speaking to NPR, Jochen Menges, a leadership scholar at the University of Zurich and Cambridge Judge Business School, said charismatic leaders tend to inspire action if they’re influential. He said, “Charisma is great to bringing about a movement, to getting us all inspired to walk out and do something. But it’s not sufficient to just establish yourself as a dreamer and someone who makes others feel good. It’s also important to then deliver upon your results.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more potential benefits than risks in having a charismatic retail CEO? What skillsets are often missing in such a visionary leader?

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Braintrust
"CEOs who put more emphasis on being interesting and using their charisma are less likely to be focused on the details that lead to success."
"Charisma paired with empathy is critical."
" I’ll prefer a heads-down hard worker over a show pony any day."

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17 Comments on "Do boring leaders make for better business results?"


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Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Being a good CEO and being charismatic are not mutually exclusive. You can be both without being a tyrant to your employees.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

A retail (or any) CEO needs enough charisma to connect with and engage the company employees. It is not necessary for a CEO to exude charisma with the consumers. Consumers only need to like the product, pricing and service.

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

Charismatic leadership has benefits in retail if the leader is starting a revolutionary new business in an business such as retail dispensaries or metaverse retail or other nascent verticals. These leaders can energize the company in the short term to achieve some hyper growth but it’s usually not sustainable for traditional retailers. In my experience, most retail teams want a steady, knowledgeable, and trustworthy leader with substance who can realize goals.

Skillsets that can be missing from a charismatic leader are listening and incorporating others’ ideas. When leading from the front, there is an over-reliance on the leader in meetings and they may dominate the discussion thereby keeping the remaining functional leaders relatively quiet – minimizing their contributions. Charismatic leadership has it’s place in key growth situations but should not be the dominant leadership trait for most retail presidents.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

The advantage that personal charisma brings to leadership is engagement. It’s far easier for charismatic leaders to get their teams’ attention and inspire confidence. “Boring” leaders can also be effective, but they have a little bit of a higher hurdle to get over to be effective. Note that bullies and tyrants can also be very effective leaders, especially in a crisis or short-term scenario. Over time, however, their effectiveness wanes, and attrition increases as team members find other opportunities.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

The goal isn’t to be boring, it’s to be effective. But CEOs who put more emphasis on being interesting and using their charisma are less likely to be focused on the details that lead to success.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I have taught an MBA course in Leadership for over 10 years now. I am currently teaching a group of Chinese students in an MBA program. In the first class, with the first slide, I tell the students this is all you must know: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure the impact lasts in your absence.”

David Spear
BrainTrust

There are legions of charismatic CEOs who have failed. We read about them all the time. When they do succeed, I believe they’re disrupting entire industries, bringing new innovation never seen before. The really good ones know their skill set limitations and surround themselves with the “boring” technicians who know the fundamentals of running their functions extremely well. Can a “boring” CEO be successful? Absolutely. They may not be the person you want to hang out with on a Saturday, but they know how to run a business profitably.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

In David Thomson’s “Blueprint to a Billion” he listed seven essentials to achieve exponential growth based on his analysis of every IPO that hit the billion mark at the time of writing. Essential #6 was that highly successful companies had “Inside-outside leadership.” He makes the point that they didn’t have one leader. For example, Steve Jobs was charismatic and the public face. Steve Wozniak was a quiet technology genius. I sure wouldn’t say “boring” but you get the “inside-outside” point. The “outward charismatic” and the “inward focused” each have distinct qualities and roles that every organization needs. One without the other has a limited prognosis.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

At the risk of sounding pompous, I do not feel that an extra dose of charisma makes for an ineffective leader. One case in point would be Ronald Reagan.

The skillsets for a visionary leader with a seat in the “C” suite include: critical thinking, courage, curiosity, calculated risk taking, collaborative spirit, and consumer-centricity.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

The companies mentioned in the study — Theranos, FTX, and Twitter — personify chaos and malfeasance. The charisma of their CEOs may have boosted awareness, but didn’t produce business results. I’ll prefer a heads-down hard worker over a show pony any day.

Brian Delp
BrainTrust
2 months 10 days ago

Charisma paired with empathy is critical.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

The answer is, it’s complicated. To begin with a great deal depends on the industry, how long the company has been operating, the competitive set, etc. For example in the tech startup sector, visionary leadership is almost a prerequisite. Charisma is a powerful and effective tool when searching for seed money, first, second, or third round funding tranches, and/or drumming up excitement for an IPO. But a big, charismatic personality may signal instability in more traditional industries. Beyond that the issue becomes whether or not the charismatic CEO is building her/his/their personal brand at the expense of the company’s brand and/or paying full attention to day-to-day operational challenges. Finally, in my experience, “vision” and “megalomania” are often easily confused. There are any number of CEOs out there that fancy themselves visionary, but are actually riding the latest business cliches and memes, sycophantic encouragement, and a lack of honest feedback about mediocre operating performance.

Mark Self
BrainTrust

I believe that the (now dated) book “Good to Great” profiled (amongst other companies) Walgreens, noting solid but non-charismatic leadership. I am not sure that charisma is a prerequisite for visionary … the delivery can be drab but if the vision inspires the team all the same, then you have the right leader. The skillsets that are missing (I know we are speaking of generalities here) are making running the business “too much about one individual” and not enough about the team.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Competence matters. How it’s packaged is but a detail.

Brad Halverson
Guest

I’ve been lucky to work for effective CEOs, some charismatic, some not at all. Both styles are successful, whether primarily in building and motivating the team to take risks or focusing on the bottom line and creating value for the investors. The most potential benefits for a company are when visionary leadership is paired up with a trusted partner (COO) to manage operations, and processes. Visionary leaders can then focus mostly on growth, culture, product, marketing.

MattFurneaux
Guest

A charismatic leader who uses that trait to engage and motivate can be a powerful benefit to any company. But in my experience charisma can sail very close to narcism and wind up becoming toxic for a company’s culture (e.g. Sir Philip Green of Arcadia “fame”), and in extreme cases threaten its survival. However, a leader who thinks charisma is the 25th of December might fail to light up a team to achieve great things. An honest, authentic and humble leader, however, will invariably build a strong team that shares and displays these qualities.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Charismatic leadership and retail savvy are a great combination. In the end, it’s the savvy part that is most important. I’ve met a number of charismatic leaders who are excellent CEOs, presidents, etc. I’ve also met leaders who don’t have people skills, but the business savvy that is necessary. This reminds me of the old saying about steak and sizzle. To paraphrase it a bit…. You can have the steak with or without the sizzle, but sizzle without steak won’t work.

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Braintrust
"CEOs who put more emphasis on being interesting and using their charisma are less likely to be focused on the details that lead to success."
"Charisma paired with empathy is critical."
" I’ll prefer a heads-down hard worker over a show pony any day."

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