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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Charismatic Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


Leading change requires courage, vision, and across-the-board buy-in. Transition and change are not easy, even in organizations that trade in change and innovation. Anxiety and tensions abound, and a bureaucratic, "management by committee" approach may cause the organization to flounder. Centralized control is one response to change; radical decentralization is another. In either case, one fairly traditional response to ambiguity is to look for a single charismatic leader to emerge.

Does the charismatic leadership approach prove effective in the distance or flexible program?

According to many scholars and historians, there is definitely a role for the charismatic leader, no matter what the organization. A person with vision and the talent to communicate that vision is indispensable in the initial or start-up phase.

Charismatic leadership gets the program off the ground, and it can be used to promote it and obtain "buy-in" across the organization.

According to most writers on the subject, the charismatic leader:

*Possesses a clear vision.

*Understands the vision now, and how it should unfold in the future.

*Articulates the vision in a manner that captures the imagination of the listeners.

*Inflames the passions of the listeners / followers with a vision of the ideal.

*Makes clear connections between the vision and lives of the listeners, and suggests how their goals, ambitions, and dreams can be realized and their lives materially enhanced by endorsing the goal.

*Leads by example. The charismatic leader adheres to the same tenets that he or she espouses, and shows how to put the concepts into practice. It could be a concrete example of how technology in education has changed his or her life.

*Allow dependency and a certain amount of passivity to occur in the followers, which may result in a suspension of action in order to advance the ideas without interruption.

*Encourages listeners to become followers, and to blur self/identity boundaries and to displace narcissistic ego needs and grandiosity onto the charismatic leader.

*Delineates a mission and communicates it effectively to the followers, who can see how it relates to them.

The charismatic leadership style may be indispensable in an e-learning organization in need of rapid change. However, there is definitely a "dark side" to charisma, and not just in doomsday cults and rogue nations.

Does a cult of personality work at all in a network, or in a distributed organization? Much depends on the organizational "glue" that holds the structure together.

Fear is an effective, yet ultimately corrosive, glue. In an organization across a distributed network where members are kept in line through fear and omnipresent surveillance, the leader's face and/or the unifying logo is a constant reminder, of coercion and of the needs that are to be met if one adheres to the vision.

Freedom from fear creates longer-lasting bonds. Meeting needs, emotional and physical, and giving individuals the freedom to accomplish their tasks in multiple ways, and using creative approaches is of paramount importance in an organization that seeks to thrive over the long term.

Charismatic leaders in a distributed environment often promise that members of the organization will be able to self-regulate and to have a great deal of self-determination. However, if the charismatic leader's promises of security and the satisfaction of emotional and physical needs are not fulfilled, they face backlash and anger.

Charismatic leadership can be problematic in a distributed environment. Some contributing factors include the following:

*Cult of personality can lead to the emergence of factions and rival personalities.

*The charismatic leader requires constant image control and "packaging." The non-verbal, semiotic elements of the message may be harder to control in a distributed environment, where unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your outlook) juxtapositions may result in a complete undermining of the message.

*Maintaining control requires keeping the vision "hot" and the persuasive elements "fresh." Ethical issues can be sidestepped in the quest for efficacy.

*The locus of control can be too centralized, and the decision-makers can be out of touch with the needs of people / entities in the network.

*There may be an untoward emphasis on affect, which is to say that the charismatic leader may try to maintain a tight grip on the emotions and emotional needs of the followers. They may be asked to disregard real physical conditions and the psychological climate and to delay the satisfaction of needs for a better pay-off sometime in the always-nebulous future.

The charismatic leader who practices such coercive tactics will eventually be caught up in a net of cognitive dissonance. In the short run, however, the discomfort may be masked by the followers' willingness to believe in the concept of a necessary sacrifice.

Perhaps, now that we're ending the discussion of charismatic leadership in a distributed environment, in an e-learning organization, it is useful to revisit definitions of charisma.

Charisma derives from the Greek word, charis, which means gift. Associated with the notion of gift, are rather superhuman or magical attributes - charm, the power to captivate, the ability to encourage individuals to suspend disbelief.

I'd like to close the discussion of charismatic leadership in an e-learning organization with the suggestion that probably the only effective and ethical use of extreme charisma in such an organization is, most resolutely, not to build a cult of personality. It is absolutely inadvisable to construct the notion of charismatic leadership around a single person or persona and then to distribute it in multiple digital forms (podcast, image, logo, emoticon, streaming media) across the network.

The true charis, or charming and enrapturing gift, is the Internet itself, and the qualities of the network that bring out the best in the points along the network, the individual participants.

In a truly distributed environment, the charismatic leader is the network itself, with the charm, power to animate hearts, minds, and spirits, and to inspire action, creativity, and constructive thought.

I feel a fit of visionary sci-fi coming on… perhaps I should stop now, and save the discussion of how the network becomes a charismatic leader for another day.

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