Of Lemmings and Leadership (with Jim Collins)

Among the counterintuitive facts that leadership expert Jim Collins has uncovered is that personal charisma is largely irrelevant in successful leadership. In fact, it can be dangerous.

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.

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