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Thomas S. Bateman

Thomas S. Bateman

Thomas S. Bateman is the Bank of America Professor in the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.

Does Competence Trump Charisma?

What is the magic ingredient that makes a leader great? This is an age-old question, revisited and refreshed by David Brooks in a recent column. Brooks suggests, based on several academic studies, that when it comes to leadership "people skills" don't matter--it is organization and execution that count.

Brooks is right that charm without substance is meaningless at best and dangerous at worst--think of the Bush administration's handling of Katrina--and that academic research focusing on personality traits, interpersonal skills, and group processes has neglected the role of leaders' sheer competence: the demonstrated ability to solve problems and create and seize opportunities.

But a vast literature on the human element in leadership--see the work of Bernard Bass, Jay Conger, Robert House and others--as well as the day-to-day experiences of workers everywhere, demonstrate that poor people skills undermine a leader's credibility, reduce people's commitment, engender cynicism and other negative work attitudes, and undermine motivation and performance. While people skills are not sufficient, they are vitally important.

The term itself, "people skills," can sound overly soft, or abstract, but when we think of it in terms of "charisma," the idea becomes sharper. And contrary to common belief, charismatic leaders are more often made than born.

Charisma is about having a compelling vision, communicating it persuasively, appealing to people's values, paying attention to people as individuals, stimulating people intellectually, and communicating high expectations for people's expectations and performance. All these aspects of charisma are actionable--if you lack them, you can learn them.

Great leaders don't go it alone and cannot solve problems in isolation. That's why the "people skills" of charisma are essential for success. The best leaders solicit input from others whom they know will offer useful--and sometimes contrary--perspectives. They are firmly decisive when necessary, but they also encourage initiative and problem-solving from others. Short of giving away secrets that aid the enemy, they communicate openly and honestly about goals, plans, and progress (or lack thereof). They engage others in productive conversation with the goal of identifying and conquering the biggest and most important challenges. They also convey a realistic optimism about the obstacles that lie ahead plus a confidence that we have the talent to figure out how to succeed.

Moreover, great leaders distribute the activities of problem-solving and opportunity-seizing throughout the organization. This means asking and motivating others to do the things that need to be done, above and beyond job descriptions. That's what solves the most problems, capitalizes on the biggest opportunities, and delivers the most far-reaching results. And that is a form of leader competence that requires people skills.
That said, there is no magic formula. Research makes it clear that there is a vast array of relevant leader attributes and behaviors, and that their impact is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and often dependent on the situation. Consistent with the complexity of the literature, everyone seems to have their own theory about what matters most, including Brooks.

But some things are very clear. Most people, most of the time, in most contexts, want leaders with good people skills. Sometimes towering competence can propel the interpersonally-challenged to greatness, at least for a while if not for the long run. Sometimes good people skills can mask incompetence. But as Julius Caesar said, "Every soldier has a right to competent command." In fact, leader competence is more than a right--it's a deep desire. In an era with too few good leaders, we are hungry for leaders that are both competent and charismatic.

By Thomas S. Bateman

 |  June 1, 2009; 12:12 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I don't think that you can separate the two qualities. I have worked in the leadership area for a long time and have noticed that leaders without both of these qualities do not do very well.

The other thing that needs to be raised here because of a couple of comments is that personal skills are often referred to as 'soft skills' which from my perspective is turning the whole pot upside down. If a leader doesn't know how to manage properly, they can have all the knowledge in the world and it's unlikely they will have a loyal team. There'll be gossiping, backbiting and hatred of the person.

The other important point is that some people seem to think that charisma is sleazy behaviour. A respected leader would never behave like that and charisma, to me is having a good personality and people skills in addition to a large dose of ethics and humanity.

Merydith Willoughby

Posted by: IBCoaching | June 9, 2009 6:42 PM
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Someone once said that General Patton could get more work out of a mediocre staff than any other commander he knew.

Posted by: elfraed | June 3, 2009 9:45 AM
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"Which is more important in the workplace, competence or charisma?"

Is that a JOKE, or was the question asked by a little kid who's never been out in the Nightmare?

I was the computer manager for a small company and scanned an incoming floppy disk for viruses. When the alarm on my PC went off, I found out later that everyone assumed I had been playing video games.

I also warned management, repeatedly, to buy a backup server, as the one we had was 9 years old. A few months later, when it crashed and caused a disaster, I was told (after I was fired) that everyone assumed I had killed it to make my point (I hadn't).

So at my next job, 11 people from branch offices all over the country wrote letters to my boss saying amazing things like "Thank god you hired Faye", and I got a huge raise. Then one day, I declined his extremely crude request for oral sex in my office after work. The next day he fired me for "unspecified insubordination", and no one wanted to listen to my story since he's "charismatic" and I'm a geek.

Is competence more important than charisma in the business world?

The question itself is insulting.

My competence did eventually result in my happiness though.

For three years I've lived in a cave in the woods after jacking into the power grid and hacking into the internet. It's my own little technology-packed apollo capsule paradise where I don't have to interact with any slick, lying, incompetent, evil, greedy "charismatic" managers.

The rest of you competent suckers can keep fighting the stupid people who run everything. I have never been more happy.

--faye kane, homeless brain.

Posted by: Knee_Cheese_Zarathustra | June 2, 2009 4:54 PM
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"poor people skills undermine a leader's credibility"

Charisma cannot properly be called a "skill." Charisma is an intuitive response that humans have to other humans. It can be developed, but it is in no way comparable to competence. Most people are incapable of judging competence, because you have to be able to do a job to judge competence. So most evaluation of other humans, at every level, is based on charisma, and not competence. If this distinction is not understood charisma becomes pathologically confused with competence, which is the case in almost every aspect of US life. As the recent economic crisis reveals, this confusion can destroy the US as a viable entity.

Posted by: kengelhart | June 2, 2009 3:38 PM
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It's even simpler than you portray it to be. People want character in conjunction with a personality that is not too extreme.

"Personality" is easy to understand. Your
"personality" is how people experience you. It's your public persona.

Balthasar Gracian wrote in his 17th century manual on success, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, as follows: "You are as much a real person as you are deep. As with the depths of a diamond, the interior is twice as important as the surface. There are people who are all facade, like a house left unfinished when the funds run out. They have the entrance of a palace but the inner rooms of a cottage."

Posted by: Skowronek | June 2, 2009 12:02 PM
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As we are often allowed to select our leaders (arguable - but I'll play along) in the U.S., I contend that we should NEVER have to choose between competence and charisma.

We may argue for years on what the definitions of competence and charasma equal, but I think the recent Presidential election demonstrates that America had suffere 8 years under the Bush-Cheney kleptocracy. Many share my view that they lacked charisma and were only competent at stealing from tax-payers.

Our new President seems to be a well balanced package of the qualities America wants in a leader (for these times). I am in my 40's and can honestly say that previous to this President's election, I would have found it unbelievable that America would elect a Black President (lets save the discussion how to define Black for another column). Thus far, President Obama has been an effective and charismatic leader, winning over many (though far from all) of his opponents. Some will NEVER agree with his success.

Posted by: free-donny | June 2, 2009 11:58 AM
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