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13 JUNE 2014
Is effective leadership about charisma or collaboration?

by Agustina Mendez: Practice head: leadership and talent at Hay Group South Africa.

We depend on effective political leadership to combine the interests of the country into a coherent programme. Business leaders face this task as well. In fact, every senior executive in any sector must also manage across organisational boundaries and craft a vision from divergent interests. The effective executive is something of a politician.

So, what enables a politician to run government departments effectively? What distinguishes those who are regarded as outstanding in service delivery? The answers can inform both the collaborative agenda in government and offer guidance to executives in all sectors grappling with increasingly assertive and demanding stakeholders.

The traditional view of a successful politician tends to emphasise their charismatic role, but leaders cannot rely on charisma alone – they need to develop their skills and reputation as collaborators. We must challenge our traditional expectations of both politicians and private sector executives, who require a combination of relationship-building, vision, integrity and flexibility.

Effective leadership at a political and managerial level should be at the core of party or organisation’s vision for the future and its priority must be that of attracting high-calibre candidates to lead. However, just like modern executives, politicians today face a challenging environment. The call for visibility and individual accountability sits alongside a new focus on partnership and working with stakeholders. There are many models of behaviour and skills for political leaders, but relatively few draw a direct link between political leaders’ behaviour and performance once in power. What really underpins politicians’ success in delivery? Is it collaboration or personal visibility, political negotiation or managerial competence?

Outstanding political leaders – who deliver results after election – are distinguished by four key characteristics:

  1. They build relationships, through listening and managing participation.
  2. They communicate and stick to a vision.
  3. They challenge the status quo.
  4. They act with integrity, taking personal accountability for challenging convention.

It is these characteristics in combination that make the difference. In isolation, they are meaningless in terms of performance. Relationship-building without vision is just pleasing people. Risk-taking without accountability is negligence. Vision without challenge is stasis.

Excellent performers on the political stage blend these characteristics together to create consensus, engagement and impact. It is a mix of the collaborative and the charismatic. There is background work and careful listening, but also the ability to make a splash. The charismatic elements are exemplified in strength of vision and personal accountability – a more socialised form of the power instinct. Collaboration is strengthened by purpose, charisma is channelled by honesty.


Highly effective leaders focus on their roles as listeners, facilitators and negotiators and approach situations on this basis, rather than relying on their positional power. They seek views, engage staff and show a concern for relationships. These skills are critical in political leadership. High-performing leaders employ these skills not only with their colleagues but in their interaction with the public – engaging, listening and mediating between the needs of people.

Bold vision

Effective leadership is not enough on its own. The most effective leaders combine a participative approach with a visionary leadership style. They provide a clear overall vision and direction for others, setting their expectations of others in the light of the long-term interests of the organisation.

High-performance is not only associated with the development of a vision but the ability to articulate it skilfully. Strong political leaders are more likely to be “skilful performers” and inspiring public speakers – characteristics associated with leaders who are perceived as charismatic. However, in the effective leader, these skills, often associated with political spin, are combined with active role-modelling of their expectations in their own behaviour, leading to the ability to “inspire confidence in the vision”. In other words, both style and substance are important.

Accountability and integrity

Popular belief portrays politicians as “talking themselves out of trouble”. Hay Group research suggests high-performance is in fact associated with a high level of personal integrity. High-performers take responsibility for what they agree to deliver and do not shift the blame onto others when things go wrong. They put the organisation’s interests first, even when it entails personal risk. This willingness helps our political leaders influence and engage others, building personal authority, rather than simply positional authority, by gaining the trust and respect of others. This moral authority or trustworthiness underpins both charismatic and collaborative leadership. The ability to challenge the status quo publicly is also an effective tool for attracting the attention a political leader needs.


High-performing political leaders are flexible. They use different styles of leadership and influence as required by their audience and situation. It seems the chameleon-like stereotype of the politician may be a virtue in terms of delivery. This flexibility is reflected in the range of leadership styles they are able to use. For politicians, as well as managers, it seems a broad repertoire of leadership styles is associated with success.

Through research with thousands of leaders over decades, Hay Group has consistently seen six generic styles of leadership. Great leaders don’t excel at a single style – they have access to all of them and use the style that suits the person and the situation. We measure the frequency with which styles are displayed and describe frequently used styles as “dominant”.

Blending charisma and collaboration

Hay Group’s research shows it is a blend of charisma and collaboration that leads to outstanding political leaders. These characteristics work in combination to inspire trust, engagement and respect and help the leader to deliver the results they have promised.

The group tends to dislike the stereotypical characteristics of politicians. However, according to the research, the popular stereotype is not true of the most successful leaders. Quite the opposite – personal accountability, consistency of vision, the ability to listen and integrity are all characteristic of those political leaders regarded as high-performers by officials and colleagues.

The quiet, behind-the-scenes operator is not ideal either. Yes, the successful political leader consults, listens and adapts – collaborating to get things done – but they also have a public role. Part of their function is to draw attention to issues, to be noticed when they speak on behalf of the government, to mobilise the country in sustained pursuit of a vision. This is the charismatic side of political leadership.

There are times when the demands of gaining office seem to conflict with the requirements of delivering, yet research suggests leaders who combine decisive collaboration and socialised charisma not only deliver the goods but are highly regarded by their peers. And, in an age of increasing expectations of public services, the ability to deliver tangible improvements is the key to long-term electoral success.

Agustina Mendez is the practice head: leadership and talent at Hay Group South Africa.


Korn Ferry
Hay Group is a global management consulting firm that works with leaders to transform strategy into reality. Everything we do supports our mission to ‘help organisations work’ through developing talent, organising people and motivating them to perform at their best. We are proud to be the only consulting firm of this kind in the world. With 85 offices located in 48 countries, we work with over 9 000 clients in 125 countries across the world. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

Wits Business School Journal
As a leading Business Magazine in South Africa, the Wits Business School Journal's objective is to provide a tool that carries thought leadership to an audience hungry for knowledge. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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