This past month, over 61 million people voted for a presidential candidate who presented himself as a needed strongman who will single-handedly restore “greatness” to a country that, by many measures, is doing pretty well. Without question, Trump has charisma, and he’s hardly the first blowhard to get widespread electoral support. That he did so against a highly-qualified opponent who emphasized lower-key virtues (experience, mastery of the details of policy and international relationships, etc.) tells us something important. Trump’s braggadocio and bullying have consistently boosted his standing as a leader with a large segment of the public.
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Dimond talks about the evolution of societies, with an early stage being a village-state led by a “big man,” essentially the local tough guy in charge. This model turned up independently in far-flung parts of the world. It may be a baked-in human characteristic that we default to such a person as a group leader; it could even be a vestigial evolutionary survival trait. (Though don’t run that by VP-elect Mike Pence, who doesn’t believe in evolution.)
But human nature that helped our species survive on the prehistoric African savanna may not be relevant to running the executive branch of the largest government in the post-industrial world. There’s a lot more to the job description than keeping a handful of people in line and negotiating with rival tribes. We might ask similar questions about the proper qualifications of corporate and nonprofit CEOs.
Since we, at Public Interest Management Group, do believe in science, my first impulse is to look for data. What can we learn about charisma and leadership from research?
Fortunately, we have some data on this question – and Trump supporters might not like what it tells us.
Using a process called Success Factor Analysis, we’ve conducted applied research on three different sets of nonprofits over the past two years, gathering data on over 30 organizational attributes and associating these traits with programmatic and financial success. One of the traits we looked at is the external orientation of the CEO – that is, the extent to which a nonprofit’s executive director focuses effort on outside constituencies (as opposed to internal management work), and the degree to which the E.D. has a recognized “brand” in the community. The first study examined historic data on 40 organizations. The second was a study of 15 nonprofits in Oregon last year. The third is a cohort of 12 Northern California nonprofits, just completed this fall. This variable doesn’t measure “charisma,” per se, but serves as a proxy for this style of leadership.
I won’t keep you in suspense. All three studies showed the same thing: we found no significant correlation between externally-focused leadership and organizational success.
Interestingly, there’s another major study that suggests that Trump-style leadership has no advantage over other styles. It’s documented in the popular book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. This work presents an in-depth study of the characteristics shared by the most successful Fortune 500 companies. The type of CEO leadership is among the traits examined. Collins identified liabilities of externally-focused leadership, the type popularized by many of the best-known CEOs in recent decades. In other words, large companies with charismatic, externally-focused leadership performed no better than those with internally-focused CEOs who “minded the knitting.” Successful CEOs generally had traits such as humility, centeredness, and a deep connection with their organization’s culture.
Curiously, Americans believe these successful attributes of leadership are more commonly seen in women than in men, but paradoxically fall back to the hyper-masculine caricature of leadership.
What does all this tell us?
First, Trump’s appeal as a decisive, strong leader likely to be effective in his new job is not backed up by any substance. The idea that a charismatic leader is, generally, an effective leader is a myth. If your gut ever tells you that charisma is overrated or inauthentic, your gut is onto something.
Second, we’re in deep shit.
Third, it reveals something useful for nonprofit management: There are a variety of valid leadership styles, and not a single “correct” one. The most effective style may vary by organization, circumstances, or personality. There are likely multiple ways to get to success.
These findings should give board search committees and their consultants pause in jumping to conclusions about “what we need” in a new CEO. This data should also inform boards that oversee and evaluate their CEOs; you should do regular, balanced reviews, looking at a range of criteria, while staying anchored in organizational outcomes such as financial performance, operational efficiency, and service impact.
All nonprofit CEOs, veteran or newly hired, can expect a full house of challenges in the Trump Era to come. They’ll need all the support they can get.