I’m convinced that nearly everyone can be a leader of something or someone. First, we’re called to exercise self-discipline and leadership over our own life. Then we may learn to wield leadership in our family as we provide a good example and wise direction for our children. And many of us have some degree of leadership responsibility in our job or business.
However, just because most people are called to some form of leadership, that certainly doesn’t mean everyone will be a good leader. In fact, excellent leaders have been extremely rare throughout human history.
Although there are many valid ways to define the qualities that make for an effective leader, three traits provide a helpful spectrum to analyze why some leaders are more successful than others: Character, Competence and Charisma. Few leaders possess a full measure of each of these, and sometimes it’s amazing how much a leader can accomplish despite severe deficiencies in one of these three areas.
My focus on this blog post is Presidential leadership, but this is just meant to be illustrative of the issue. The 3-C leadership grid can be applied to leaders in any sphere of activity, from politics or the military to churches or nonprofit organizations. And I hope you’ll take some time to apply these to your own leadership level today.
If you look at this list of the past 10 American Presidents, how would you rate them in terms of their character, competence and charisma?Barack Obama George W. Bush Bill Clinton George H.W. Bush Ronald Reagan Jimmy Carter Gerald Ford Richard Nixon Lyndon Johnson John Kennedy
Of course, your rating system may be skewed by whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Independent. But try to be objective. What do you discover about leadership from an examination of these national leaders, whose administrations spanned a period of 52 years?
Some of our Presidents have had severe character flaws. They were womanizers, liars or narcissists. In the case of Richard Nixon, he lost his presidency because of the lies and cover-ups of Watergate. But in other cases, the character flaws seemed only speed bumps on the road to overall success. Remember Bill Clinton philosophizing about the mean of “is” while trying to cover up his lies about the fling with Monica Lewinsky? Yet many people consider him a Presidential rock star today.
Other Presidents struggled with competence, even though they may have been highly successful in their careers before assuming the presidency. Maybe you’ve heard of the Peter Principle, the theory that people often are promoted multiple times, until they finally reach a level of responsibility beyond their abilities.
And some Presidents, of course, have excelled in charisma. Kennedy, Reagan and Obama come to mind, but Clinton definitely has had his moments too. So, arguably, fewer than half of the most recent Presidents were highly charismatic. That may seem surprising. And if you guess I value character and competence over charisma, you are right.
However, that doesn’t mean charisma is of no value to effective leadership. Quite the contrary. People aren’t influenced by leaders based on character and competence alone. In order to reach maximum impact, leaders must exude a convincing confidence in their vision for the future. Reagan ran for reelection on the basis that he had sparked “morning in America.” He constantly reaffirmed his confidence that America was a shining city on a hill, the best hope for peace and freedom around the world.
Yes, charisma is an extremely helpful attribute for a leader. But charisma also is the most dangerous of the “3 Cs.” Attila the Hun, Napoleon and Hitler all had charismatic personalities. They displayed an uncanny ability to persuade people to follow their lead, possibly because their charisma was mixed with a high degree of competence. However, these men also were diabolical, power-hungry egomaniacs. Although they succeeded in getting numerous people to follow their lead, they were leading their flock in totally the wrong direction.
So how does the Character-Competence-Charisma triad apply to the current Presidential election? The analysis can begin with the Republican contenders during the primaries. Some, like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, had unquestionably solid character, but voters weren’t persuaded that they also had the necessary degree of competence and charisma. Other candidates, like Newt Gingrich, clearly had experience, competence and a firm grasp of the issues, but his past marital indiscretions raised insurmountable character issues in the minds of many voters. And some of the candidates just didn’t seem to have enough charisma to be the leader of the country and the free world.
So now we have a choice between Obama and Romney and a variety of small-party candidates no one ever hears about. It’s pretty clear who’s winning the charisma battle, but what about the other leadership traits, character and competence? And remember: Just because a leader is effective in getting people to follow him, that doesn’t mean he is going in the right direction.