In business and in politics, Dr. Raj Pillai’s research has shown that in crisis situations, people often look for a leader who is inspiring, has a vision that challenges the status quo and presents a viable solution to the crisis. This leader is then often invested with charisma. Riding on the strength of that charisma, leaders can motivate and inspire their followers to make sacrifices for the collective good and get behind a new transformational agenda. That charisma of course lasts only until the leader is seen as successfully handling the crisis (e.g., Lee Iacocca in the early days of the Chrysler turnaround, Rudy Giuliani after 9-11) and can wane in later years.
Charisma, which is one of the hallmarks of the transformational leadership approach comes from the unlikeliest of sources and takes many forms. Dr. Pillai’s research has shown that it is manifested at all levels of the organization. Today, as we confront the crisis of Covid-19 and the nation-wide protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many leaders have emerged from different segments of our society. People have invested Dr. Anthony Fauci with unlikely and uncharacteristic charisma trusting in his words, generally following his guidelines about safety during the pandemic, and also paying tribute to him in unusual ways (e.g., making doughnuts with his likeness!). Several young people are leading the Black Lives Matter protests for change around the world. There is a feeling that this might be a turning point. Locally, you see Jim Floros, President and CEO of the San Diego Food bank successfully making a plea for volunteers and funds to feed the hungry during this unprecedented crisis.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Health and Infectious Disease Director
Jim Floros, CEO San Diego Food Bank at Mira Costa Food Pantry
What are some of the lessons for leadership from the research and practice (interviews with guests in our In the Executive’s Chair Course over the years) on leadership during crisis? How can we better lead our organizations through these turbulent times?
About Dr. Raj Pillai: Dr. Raj Pillai has been fascinated with leadership in crisis situations from long before she entered her doctoral program in the United States. In fact, she grew up in India reading the biographies and autobiographies of Gandhi, Lincoln, Churchill and others. Her research has focused on the crisis and charisma both in organizations and in the context of presidential elections.