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true leadership

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2000 | BY John Gehl , Robin Perry , Suzanne Douglas , Peter J. Denning 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Who are the greatest managers you've ever worked for or known? Would they meet the test the great management consultant Peter Drucker suggested when he said: "Leadership grounded in charisma, which is what so many writers today want to advocate, inevitably becomes misleadership. I am amazed that today's prominent writers on leadership do not seem to realize that the three most charismatic leaders in all recorded history were named Hitler, Stalin and Mao." Drucker believes that, without exception, all the charismatic leaders of the last 50 years -- whether in business, government or religion -- have ended in failure and disgrace and left a legacy of mismanagement and chaos. "The test of any leader is not what he or she accomplishes. It is what happens when they leave the scene. It is the succession that is the test. If the enterprise collapses the moment these wonderful, charismatic leaders leave, that is not leadership. That is -- very bluntly -- deception."

Overstating the Case

Either Drucker overstates his case or this excerpt makes him appear to do so. Charisma can be a valuable asset to a leader. In fact, it may be a required element. It is not, however, all that a leader needs. A leader must also have, among other things, a vision of where he or she wants to lead, some basic intelligence as to how to get there, as well as a significant amount of empathy to be able to gauge how well a message is getting across. The quote mentions three charismatic leaders of the 20th Century. Of these, only one can be counted a failure. Adolf Hitler was forcibly removed from his position of leadership. Both Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong maintained their positions until they died of natural causes. The regime that Stalin left behind did fall, but it managed to continue under six or so successors. The regime of Mao continues to this day. Neither can objectively be considered a failure. What of some of the other charismatic leaders of this century? Are we to ignore the charismatic aspects of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt? And what of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi? Are any of these leaders considered failures? While Drucker is undoubtedly right to say that charisma alone will make a poor leader, asserting that charisma is not important will not stand up to critical examination.

-- Craig E. Ward

True leadership is catalyst for change

IMHO, Mr. Drucker has confused "charisma" with "trust". I also take issue with his list, which places Hitler, Mao and Stalin ahead of Jesus Christ, Ghandi, and Moses. If you don't like the religious implications of my list, try Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson instead. Charismatic leadership may be deception in disguise, but true leadership is the ability to be the catalyst for significant change that persists after the individual is gone. Results based on fundamental change (good or bad), are not obvious at the outset to the true recipients, the followers. Mr. Drucker is simply mistaken.

-- Alan Lawson


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