Trouble happens when followers cede independence
By Jeremy Au Yong
THERE was an interesting study on charisma conducted in 1998, just after Steve Jobs returned to Apple but before he built his reputation as a messianic chief executive.
Then, researchers asked 150 students to allocate $10,000 across three possible investments: a mutual fund, money market certificates or Apple shares.
The students were given similar sets of financial information with one big difference. Half the students were shown a video of Jobs making a presentation at a trade show with his trademark flair, while the rest were not.
Researchers wanted to see if the simple addition of Jobs' charisma would have any impact on the investment decisions. The results shed some light on the impact charisma can have.
The arrest of Kong Hee and four other leaders of the City Harvest Church last week for alleged financial wrongdoings has once again drawn scrutiny to the notion of charismatic leadership.
Without commenting on his innocence or guilt - that is now a matter before the courts - his case does reignite debate over the potential dangers of charismatic leaders.
It is a conversation Singapore society has had before. After the cases involving former National Kidney Foundation (NKF) chief T.T. Durai or former Ren Ci head Ming Yi, some concluded that there was a need to be warier of the charismatic among us, because charisma is like a super power that is deadly in the wrong hands.
But if people are aware of the risk, why do they leave themselves vulnerable? Why do they not learn their lesson? And what exactly is it about charisma that seems to disable even the best defences?
Like any super power, there is nothing intrinsically bad about charisma. The ability to attract people and inspire them to follow you is actually very valuable.
For every Jim Jones, the charismatic leader responsible for the mass suicide of over 900 people, there is a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson.
In fact, an argument could be made that charismatic leaders actually saved many companies because they pushed through change that was needed.
The problem with charisma does not lie with just the charismatic leader. Rather, the trouble tends to stem from how charisma changes the way the followers relate to the leader and the organisation.
Political scientist Marty Linsky once wrote that effective leadership meant 'disappointing followers at a rate they can absorb'.
He reasoned that a leader who disappointed his followers too much would be turfed out while one who did not disappoint at all was not leading anyone anywhere.
The idea implies a sort of social contract between a leader and a follower. In the absence of charisma, this contract has to include a shared sense of mission. The follower goes along with the leader because he believes the leader is taking him where he wants to go.
If the leader then starts to head off in a different direction, that social contract is violated and the leader may find he has lost his followers.
This arrangement, however, can be eroded by the presence of a a magnetic personality. A very charismatic leader does not have the same social contract. He does not need to be on the same page as his followers.
In this situation, people follow not because of some aligned sense of purpose. They are there because they are drawn to this outgoing, dynamic, passionate person.
One clear sign that an organisation has come under the spell of a charismatic leader is a sharp distinction between the way he is viewed inside and outside the organisation.
Many outside the NKF seethed when Mr Durai's lavish lifestyle came to light, so much so that the building was vandalised.
Yet, when he resigned shortly after, NKF staff members gave him a grand, emotional send-off. At the end of his farewell speech, they gave him a standing ovation.
'I've seen him work. It's his passion. He works seven days a week, by choice, for a larger cause,' a manager was reported as saying that day.
All this despite the court proceeding just days earlier showing that Mr Durai had, among other things, travelled on first class flights and had a gold-plated tap installed in his office toilet.
The results of the Steve Jobs survey give an insight into how powerful the effect can be. The group that watched a 20-minute video of Jobs invested on average three times more in Apple shares than the group that did not.
They all had the same facts, but the sheer force of personality coloured their perceptions of those facts.
The charismatic leader can thus disempower his followers. They do things not because they have reasoned that it is the right thing to do but because they have ceded a lot of independence to the person asking them to do it.
Suddenly, there is no amount of disappointment they cannot absorb.
And often, not enough attention is paid to this supporting cast. When we look back on the NKF now, we tell the story of how Mr Durai compromised the organisation. But the story is not complete without including the role of his close associates.
Even if we argue that he put them there, he could not have achieved that manoeuvre without others watching it and choosing to look the other way.
To understand that is to see that no amount of new safeguards against a leader will ever be sufficient if the followers are weak. The bars of the cell may be thick but they are useless if the inmates hold all the keys.
And it is in the very nature of charisma to create weak followers.
Thus, in trying to protect organisations from abuse, what is needed may not just be more regulations or more procedures.
Instead, it is about making sure we never turn a blind eye to our own reasoning just because a flashy leader passionately and articulately tells us to.