Leaders and lessers

There’s an ad running in my morning paper that trumpets a one-day conference next month that’s entitled “Cultivate Leadership Charisma.” The seven speakers listed are unknown to me but that may be my fault. I guess I hang out with the wrong crowd. This bunch promises charisma like Tony Robbins, a more famous name on the lecture circuit, claims he can teach anyone selling skills.

I went to a Robbins performance once, just to see how it all worked. Hundreds of people, many of them real estate agents, had paid big bucks to have their egos rebuilt, techniques burnished, and confidence restored. Attendees were like golf carts being recharged. I can understand people in sales needing a boost. Hearing “no” to your pitch must wear you down after a while. Larry King was among the speakers that day. He couldn’t believe his good luck when the audience howled at the Yogi Berra quips he used for openers. His talk deteriorated into a recitation of Berra one-liners, then he picked up his cheque, and flew home.

So you can sell laughs and even raise a few hopes. And it may be that some requisites of leadership can be learned or at least enhanced: capacity to execute, ability to draw out the best in people, communications skills, experience and expertise. But a leader also needs high energy levels that have to be inherent.

As for charisma, I can think of only a few such leaders who have graced Canada’s legislatures or boardrooms. Among modern-day politicians: Pierre Trudeau, René Lévesque, John Diefenbaker, and Tommy Douglas. Among business leaders: Matt Barrett, Hunter Harrison, Bruce Flatt, and Chief Billy Diamond. Can you teach charisma? I think not. I would argue that leaders are born, not made. And certainly not created at a one-day seminar.

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