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Of Lemmings and Leadership (with Jim Collins)

November 18, 2011, 7:26 AM

What’s the Big Idea? 

It turns out that the idea of lemmings following one another off a cliff was planted in the American brain by the Walt Disney Corporation, whose film crew hurled a bunch of lemmings into a river for the 1958 documentary White Wilderness. My reaction to this news?: total denial. I refuse to relinquish lemmings as a metaphor.

Metaphorically speaking, lemmings get a bad rap. People tend to focus on the mindless herd behavior, the self-destructive cliff-diving, etc. But what of that singular Alpha lemming that all the others follow? What can he or she teach us about leadership? Quite a lot, actually.

Getting people to follow you is not about charisma. It’s about total commitment to your mission. People are infinitely more complicated than lemmings, but we share a tendency to follow leaders who are completely devoted to a cause greater than themselves. They may or may not be naturally charismatic, but their passion is magnetic – it draws us in and inspires us to pick up hammer, saw, or pen, roll up our sleeves and get to work alongside them.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Great by Choice, has analyzed hundreds of successful corporations, past and present, studying traits like leadership and innovation. Among the counterintuitive facts he has uncovered is that personal charisma is largely irrelevant in successful leadership. In fact, it can be dangerous.

What’s the Significance?

One of the more interesting online analyses of charismatic leadership comes, not surprisingly, from an encyclopedia of religion.  The entry focuses on radical religious cults, but the excerpt below could serve as a cautionary tale in year one of any business school. Organizations built around the leader’s charisma alone, it argues, are volatile, internally paranoid, and monolithic. In other words, poised for failure.

From The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Swatos, W. H., & Kivisto, P. (2000). Altamira Press:
In Economy and Society, Max Weber distinguished between traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic modes of authority. The third is based upon the perception of believers that a particular individual possesses extraordinary qualities.

"Charismatic authority," notes Wallis (1993:176) "is a fundamentally precarious status" because leaders' claims to authority rest "purely on subjective factors." Followers' perception of the leader's extraordinary qualities may be situated and ephemeral. The charismatic leader must continually face the prospect that his special "gift of grace" will no longer be perceived and his authority will fade

Charismatic leaders must continually be on the alert for threats to their authority from outsiders, dissidents, and rivals within the movement as well as from their administrative staff.

Lacking both immediate restraints and long-term supports, a charismatic leader will be inclined to protect his or her position by attempting to "simplify" the group's internal environment to eliminate sources of dissension, normative diversity, and alternative leadership.

References: R. Wallis, "Charisma and Explanation," Secularism, Rationalism and Sectarianism , ed. E. Barker et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993): 167-179

This post is part of the series Inside Employees' Minds, sponsored by Mercer
Image credit: Sergey Mikhaylov/Shutterstock.com

Of Lemmings and Leadership ...

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