Kill Your Career With Charisma
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Rakesh Khurana is a young and, some might say, charismatic assistant professor at Harvard Business School. But in his forthcoming book, Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs (Princeton University Press), he argues that turning to charismatic "savior" CEOs as cure-alls has become a dangerous corporate obsession. We talked to Khurana about yes-people, shamans, and how the likes of Enron's Jeff Skilling got their jobs in the first place.
Q: Isn't charisma a good thing?
A: I'm not saying that charisma is bad. But charismatic authority has always been the worst kind of authority.
Q: How so?
A: This is how primitive societies used to behave. They believed there was a shaman who controlled our fate, and if we could only trust the shaman, everything would be okay. The whole victory of Western society was in overcoming this charismatic view--in fact, this was the source of greatness of American corporations. In many ways, we went back to a system that we know failed.
Q: What's wrong with that system?
A: First, arguments get won based on personality rather than logic and focus. Think about Jeff Skilling. He's the perfect example of the perils of charismatic leadership. Second, charismatics usually surround themselves with yes-people--the Scott Sullivans and Andy Fastows of the world. Charismatics can't stand criticism, so the organization revolves around [trying to please them].
Q: Remind me why we placed such faith in these people to begin with.
A: It's partly the business media. Lee Iaccoca was the first charismatic type, and beginning with him, more and more stories were about the personality of the CEO and less about the organization itself--as if the only explanation for GE's success was that Jack Welch overcame a stutter when he was 8 years old. The result was a star system in which CEOs became branded like jeans or cola.
Q: And boards of directors bought into this?
A: Yes. AT&T, Kodak, Xerox, Polaroid--all these companies went outside for their saviors. But the problems facing these companies had nothing to do with their CEOs. Many boards find themselves in this infinite loop of hiring a savior, having their expectations dashed, and then starting the process all over again.
Q: So is charisma a quality we should try to stamp out?
A: I think the most important thing is to recognize that there are no messiahs. This requires a great deal of introspection--not only on the part of the boards and analysts and CEOs but also on the part of the American public, who glorified and elevated these individuals to unsustainable heights.
Q: So what becomes of the failed charismatic?
A: We do what we've always done to our failed messiahs: crucify them.
Q: Do you think the CEO crucifixions are deserved?
A: I take a very empathic position. My wife is a former CEO [at Surebridge, a 140-person ASP]. My family thrives on capitalism. I'm just a private in the capitalist army, reporting to the generals what's going on.