Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Powers and Perils of Charisma

Today’s blog returns, at least partly, to the political arena though this applies in many aspects of life.

John Kennedy, Adolph Hitler, Barak Obama, Jim Jones, Bill Clinton, David Koresh. What do all those people have in common? Charisma. Each and every one attracted a following of dedicated supporters. However, some of those supporters can be more involved with a personality cult than with critical thinking. Too often they don't look at where their leader is taking them.

Charismatic leaders need to be careful lest they mislead their followers. The rest of us must be equally careful to avoid being misled. If we understand the problem and remain aware of it, that will help both leaders and the rest of us.

Charisma is a very powerful personality trait and can be used for good or ill. Sports coaches, military leaders, motivational speakers and similar people can use charisma to get people to perform beyond their normal capability. However charisma can also be dangerous. Jim Jones convinced his followers that they should drink poison. Hitler created one of the worst regimes in the history of the world. David Koresh led his followers into a fiery disaster. In each of these cases, people followed a charismatic leader. This unthinking followership leads to groupthink, a condition in which agreement becomes more important that what is right or true.

I saw a good example of this while I was at the army's jump school in Georgia. The commander of that school was a colonel who was a great leader and teacher. His charisma got everybody fired up to learn and to perform the unnatural act of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. It was the best training I got during my entire time in the army. However that commander was never going to get another promotion because of previous misuse of his charisma. He got a group of paratroopers fired up to jump even though the wind was high enough that regulations prohibited a jump. Some were injured and a couple were killed, all because he led them to act without thinking.

One of the best-documented examples of this comes from the Bay of Pigs fiasco early in the Kennedy presidency. Irving Janis describes this in his two books about groupthink. (The second book is really just an expanded version of the first.)

One of the major reasons for the Bay of Pigs decision was that Kennedy's charisma made staff members want to agree with what they thought he wanted. The decision to go ahead with the invasion was made essentially in a vacuum with no contrary opinions or information allowed. Dissenters were silenced and no effort was made to obtain outside information. The decision-makers acted on the assumptions that the Cuban military was ineffectual and that the Cuban people would rise up and help the invaders. Both assumptions were seriously wrong and experts in the State Department knew they were wrong. Nobody consulted those experts.

A study of the meetings leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion presents a picture of staff members enthralled with a charismatic leader. This caused them to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. Robert Kennedy even functioned as a "mindguard," telling at least one staffer that he should not speak his mind, but instead should get behind the president on the decision. Such decision-making problems are obviously dangerous. Why hire smart people as advisers and then allow them to be silenced?

To Kennedy's credit, he and his staff learned from the Bay of Pigs. When the Cuban missile crisis arose, they corrected their previous problems. Kennedy even went so far as to deliberately absent himself from many meetings to avoid giving people any hint as to his own preferences. His staff also made an effort to question all information and decisions. No person or opinion was ignored, nor was any person or opinion automatically accepted. The result was no groupthink and a much better decision.

The above illustrates the dangers a charismatic leader presents. A leader must, absolutely must, make good decisions if he is to help his followers. However charisma tends to block critical thinking among subordinates. It also causes voters to vote on the basis of personality instead of selecting a politician for good decision-making skills. For those reasons, charisma is a dangerous characteristic. Rock stars and other entertainers may be charismatic, but we should be very careful about charismatic leaders.

Each of us should recognize when we are following someone because of charisma. Then we should mentally step back and evaluate where that leader is taking us. Are his positions well thought out? Realistic? Really what we want and should do? We should do our own critical thinking before putting ourselves in the care of such a person. Had the paratroopers mentioned above thought before just following the jump would probably have been canceled and the deaths avoided.

Charismatic people have a great responsibility as well. They need to recognize their power to mislead and make an extra effort to be sure people think critically before following. The methods used by Kennedy and his staff during the Cuban missile crisis provide a good example of how to do it right.

Charisma can be a useful tool to get things done after a good decision is made. However it can interfere with decision-making and lead us to charge off, enthusiastically, in the wrong direction. We must be careful to avoid that kind of decision-making.

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