In Praise of Pragmatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership is compelling: in times of crises, people turn to a leader whose vision offers vision and instills confidence. However, a study of the Fortune 500 firms demonstrates that the companies that best weather economic difficulties are those whose managers practice "old-school, pragmatic, by-the-numbers" leadership. A good analogy is a comparison of plow-horses and show-horses.

I'm skipping the details. This article is bashing the celebrity CEOs who led their companies astray, suggesting that this is evidence that the unglamorous, old-school style of management is the better choice for the long haul.

The result is an implied dichotomy between charisma and effective leadership - that the two are antipodes, such that a leader who is charismatic cannot or must not be competent (and vice versa). When in truth, there are a number of leaders who are both charismatic and competent, and many leader who lack charisma and are complete buffoons, nonetheless.

In truth, charisma is an attribute and can be a valuable asset to a leader. While it is not the sole trait of an effective leader (i.e., a person who is merely charismatic, and has not other competencies), some aptitude charisma is, and always has been, a critical element of leadership effectiveness.

There are other characteristics of leadership that contribute to competency, but the author does not address them. In the end, the article is less about praising pragmatic leadership than echoing the media feeding frenzy over recent corporate failures, and assuming (as there is no examination of causality) that it was because of an over-emphasis on celebrity.

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned is that the HBR is not sacrosanct, and is subject at times to tabloid journalism.