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Executive charisma: nature or nurture?

Undoubtedly, we all consider that some of the public figures we know, are very charismatic. President Clinton, for instance, was always said to make his interlocutor feel like the only person in the world, no matter how busy he was. In corporate life, I think for instance of Sir Richard Branson, the man who created Virgin. Throughout the years, he built eight different Virgin companies, starting all from scratch. All of them reached a revenue of more than 1 billion Euros; they have been established on different continents and in different industries. He became 'Sir' for good reason.

Closer to home, I have had the pleasure of working for Patrick de Maeseneire during several years. Nowadays, Patrick is CEO of the Adecco Group, worldwide leader in the field of HR services and temporary help. When he was my boss, he was responsible for the Adecco Group in the Benelux. At the time, my career had just started. After the period during which he had been working for the Adecco Group, he has successfully led Barry Callebaut as their CEO to become the leader on the global market of the chocolate industry. In 2007, Patrick was rewarded for that in Belgium; he won the seventh Vlerick Award. Early 2009, he returned to the Adecco Group to become its worldwide CEO. In the meantime, I had left the company. Within my network, I heard that different people of the organization, even people working 3 or 4 levels under the c-suite level, would really have loved to work for him again. It is amazing which impact charisma can also have on attracting and keeping your employees!

I learned a lot from Patrick during the years I have been working for him. He has had a huge impact on my development.
  1. The most important thing he taught me, might have been how the approach 'hard on the matter, soft on the people' works in practice. Patrick took all the rational decisions necessary for the business, but always by considering the human aspects. Several times, I had the opportunity to see this with my own eyes. It is a subtle balance he perfectly manages to find.
  2. I saw how Patrick communicated very intensively with all stakeholders. When communicating, he used humor, looked confident and was always giving credits to the people.
  3. It was amazing to see the accessible and modest attitude he adopted towards all employees. He didn’t show off. On the contrary: he was open to everyone.

Meanwhile, I have learnt that even charismatic effective leaders perfectly know what they are doing. Sometimes, it seems as if they don’t have to make efforts, but mind you: they have been working hard to get so far. All effective leaders have been investing in themselves for years in order to become even more successful. This goes from specific practical skills such as speaking in public to the promotion of the organization’s values. Throughout the years, they have learnt how to really listen to their customers and employees. Moreover, they know how important it is to inspire confidence when the company is going through a difficult time.

Indeed, people with natural charisma are advantaged. However, if they don’t sufficiently learn from their experiences, if they remain rugged, they won’t be effective after all. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible that people with less natural charisma make great progress, so that they become more and more effective as a leader.

Charismatic leaders can make a huge difference. But there are some risks too. They can take the company to the highest top, but to the lowest bottom as well. Therefore, I would like to refer to Herman’s column in which he advises to put Put a real team in the cockpit of a company. After all, if an effective leader is also a good team builder, the company will have excellent chances to remain successful.

My advice
  1. Keep investing in your own development. It only starts once you have graduated. Lifelong learning is the name of the game.
  2. Ask your people to give you lots of feedback. This way, you can ensure a continuous stream of feedback about your own performances.
  3. Keep learning from all your experiences and the opportunities you get.


By Paul Donkers

"my purpose is to help improve strategy execution, to create high performing teams and coach for effective business leaders"

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