What is Charisma?

I have worked for at least five companies which were started by ordinary men, with ordinary-or-less skill, who had no more vision or foresight than your average truck driver or waitress, and whose lucky business experiments turned into enterprises that even their worst characteristics were unable to destroy in their working lifetime. When I hear the wingnut talking heads jabber about “the entrepreneur spirit” or “business charisma” or read a Forbes article about some ‘genius” business exec who appears to be about as bright as a barfly, I admit to total confusion. I’ve known the little guys and the big guys (CEOs, COOs, CFOs, and miscellaneous VPs and directors of Misfortune 100 and 500 corporations) and I have seen nothing brilliant, creative, or inspirational in their behavior or talents. I’m not saying that all of those guys, those “leaders,” were idiots or incompetents, but I am saying that they were not anything special in any identifiable way. At least, in any way I could identify.

However, enough exposure to this stuff will teach even the dumbest guy something. This past week, I spent two long, dreary, dull, monotonous, painful days with my wealthy and “successful” brother. Thirty years ago, he started a business with some non-participating “partners” (aka investors) that tuned into something overwhelmingly successful. His son has taken on the business while my brother has turned what he believes is his “business skill” toward a collection of real estate and development investments that are most likely going to undo 30 years of good fortune, big money, and gaudy luxury. Neither of them appear to be bound for a happy ending. The son has decided that “being too nice” to his employees (the ones who built the business) was his father’s great fault and the father has bought into the idea that he is a business genius and can turn shit to gold just with a wave of his hand.

As an adult who has had competent people working for him for 30 years--doing the technical and skilled tasks—my rich-but-disabled brother become unable to pay his own personal bills, venture competently into the world outside of his 1%’er compound (Guantanamo for rich people?), deal with people who don’t see him as a source of unearned income (everyone not asking for tips and handouts or running a con), manage his personal habits (drinking, anger, healthcare, money, and his family and friends), or feed himself outside of ordering a meal at a neighborhood restaurant. “I’ve got people” is the plaintive cry of the characters who are supposed to be so inspirational, according to the business press. Obviously, competence , intelligence, or foresight are not key characteristics of a corporate leader. So, what is at the heart of what makes someone likely to turn a fairly common idea into a fortune?

You could call it “charisma” or you could call it “entrepreneurial spirit” or you can call it “luck,” but what it isn’t is genius. What I have seen, consistently, is a quality that I’ve read is at the heart of the Harvard Business School training; a willingness to pull credit up and push blame down. That’s it. That is the whole story when it comes to who makes the big bucks and creates the biggest successes in business.

Normal, non-psychopathic people, are smart enough to realize that things happen in business because of more than just one person. Normal, productive people naturally share credit and blame to get the job done. Normal people do not put themselves ahead of everyone else in a project. People with “charisma” are not normal.

Media children who have never had a real job, performed a useful task, or accomplished a measureable thing in their lives, assume their unenlightened myopic vision of how a business works has some connection to reality and pump that into the idiotic biographies they publish or broadcast in business journals or television programs and try to sell the rest of us on buying into magic instead of what lies in plain sight. “Are you gonna believe us or your lyin’ eyes?”

I vote for my eyes. Thanks for asking.

Charisma appears to be nothing more than they psychopathic ability to convince smarter, more-talented people that there is a shared mission: a mission that, in reality, is nothing more than a ploy to get talent to buy into making one person or a very few people rich and/or powerful while wasting the time and energy of the people with real talent. This is not unlike the qualities of a historic military leader who can convince young men to throw away their lives for “honor” or some other irrational fantasy, while burning up the resources and future of nations for fun and profit. This kind of “leadership” ought to be something intelligent people run from as if it were attached to a plague carrier. Characters like Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca, and the usual charismatic suspects business promotes as examples of “leadership” are all of the same semi-psychopathic character.

From a different perspective, the Harvard Business Review raved about Jobs’ ability to con employees into making him rich, “In this new organization, employees were supposed to work ceaselessly, uncomplainingly, and even for relatively low pay not just to produce and sell a product but to realize the vision of the messianic leader.” I’m pretty that is exactly what I said, except I called the business plan “a ploy to get talent to buy into making one person or a very few people rich ” and the HBR called it “the vision of the messianic leader.” In my opinion, the difference between their description and mine is that mine provides detail about the “vision.” None of these assholes is trying to create something lasting, other than their personal fortune and power. The only noticeable societal change any of these characters produced was to their family inheritance.

A few years ago, one of the founders of Intel, Andy Grove, cautioned employees of all sorts to consider their employer as just a customer, rather than a partner. When you see someone with charisma offering employment, I recommend running as fast as possible in any direction that puts as much distance between this “leader” as possible. Nothing good will come, to you, from exposure to a psychopath. This is the kind of customer real businesses avoid.

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