Out of the Box Coaching and
Breakthroughs with the Enneagram, Mary R. Bast, Ph.D. 
Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. Revised: December 01, 2013





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The Charismatic Leader 

"I have a huge amount of energy that rarely lags," said Chris, the CEO of her organization. "So I get exasperated with people who are too cautious or who whine a lot. There are some people in this organization with a Goody Two Shoes mentality, and I want to push on that." Chris had had a very successful career, and her company was doing well, so I asked her why she'd brought me in. "I'm tired of doing everything myself," she replied. "I don't have enough faith in others to let them take over, so I'd like for you to work with my team and help them develop more strength."

"What about you?" I challenged. "They need to see you're willing to go first. I hope you don't find that too threatening."

"There's very little fear in me," she countered. "But don't expect to make me into something I'm not. I had enough of that as a kid!"

Mentally applauding, I encouraged her to say more. "I set an explicit goal to treat my kids in a different way than I experienced, which was being pounded with negative feedback and trying to make me something I was not. My mother was like the mother in Ordinary People, constantly disappointed in me I was too heavy, too loud, too aggressive."

In response to my questions about her relationship with her children, Chris acknowledged that her husband's more laid-back style had acted as a buffer when her parenting was a little too tough. "We have a 'perfect' marriage," she cracked. "A man who can't say no and a woman who won't take no for an answer."

My postulate that her husband might be an Enneagram Nine (I often see this combination) was borne out when I asked about their social life. "I plan all our vacations, our evenings out, and he sometimes acquiesces and then complains about it because it's not what he really wanted to do. But he won't flip over and initiate anything. When we're on vacation it's a hoot, because his idea of fun is water, sun, and a book. Mine is a boat, SCUBA gear, a set of golf clubs, nine dinners out -- I'm a perpetual motion machine."

"And you see some similar patterns at work," I reflected.

"Yeah, I'm good at grabbing people and moving them toward a vision," she said, "but I sometimes jump ahead too fast and leave others behind who wanted to be involved. What really drives me nuts is when there's a hot agenda item and people are wasting time. I'm pretty tenacious and sometimes I can be obsessed with control. And when I get exasperated with people, I tend to say 'F---- it! I'm the CEO why can't I throw my weight around?'" 

I was puzzling out a response to that statement when she laughed, "That reminds me of a great story I heard about the community organizer, Saul Alinsky, who wrote Rules for Radicals. He was with a group of people eating breakfast where one woman had asked twice for some syrup for her pancakes. Alinsky stood on his chair and shouted, 'Bring me the goddamned syrup!' I like that."

"So, how's that style working with your team?" I probed.

"I know some of them are intimidated," she admitted. "I've certainly heard that often enough and when I really forget myself I can be verbally abusive, even mean. Also, though I have a good sense of humor, I'm not sure when I'm going over the edge with it. sometimes it bites people. So I'm not getting the most out of them I could."

"And what about you?" I again challenged.

I was deeply touched by her answer: "I'd like to go deeper into myself and find I'm not a monster."

Chris set up an appointment for me with the Chairman of the Board. "The Board is very happy with Chris. When she talks, people listen," Hal mused. "There's very little bluff to her -- she doesn’t shoot any bull," he continued. "She never seems to have any hesitation about what to do. She's outspoken, lets everybody know what she wants, and she usually gets it. It would take two or three people to replace her." Hal also focused on the more personal side, because he and Chris and their families had become friends: "She’s quite lovable when you get to know her she truly has a tender heart and her family and friends are very important to her. She has a great respect for life, including animals. She’s very moral, will even sacrifice popularity for principle. It’s very simple with her you don’t compromise your values."

One of Chris' trusted supporters was her administrative assistant, Anne, who said, "Chris starts out well in most situations because she’s smart and knowledgeable, but she’s burned some bridges behind her. If she finds somebody's been incompetent she’ll let them have it with both barrels, and she doesn’t care about their status. She’s made people look like dopes who needed to be handled with kid gloves. I’ve overheard her a couple of times on the speakerphone when I thought she got into an 'attack and defend' mode." Anne (a Nine, like Chris' husband) obviously felt supported by Chris, and wished Chris had a more balanced life: "She has huge intensity but she works too hard. Her stamina and dedication go to unhealthy bounds. She expects from others what she expects from herself, but what she expects is unreasonable."

I interviewed two of Chris' direct reports, based on her observation that they represented different ends of the continuum in their reactions to her. Charley (style One) related well to her: "I expect her to tell me like it is, but others aren’t so open. She may not have the best of manners. She certainly isn’t subtle; she’s kind of brash and abrupt. But deep down I don’t believe we’d have achieved the outcomes we have without an offensive posture. It’s not an unknown business strategy that some people get to wear the black hat." When I asked Charley if Chris treated him the same as she did the others, he said, "She trusts me and I rarely feel over-controlled. She’s forceful, and we’ve parried a bit, but that doesn’t bother me because she has a great concern for doing what’s right and I would expect her to speak up. She won’t back off, so if you think you’re right you’ve got to hold your ground with her. I consider that a strength, but many people are intimidated by her and have trouble standing up to her demanding approach. A couple of my colleagues find her extremely controlling. If she disagrees with something, she says so immediately, and overall this comes off as gruff and overbearing."

When asked what he'd recommend for Chris, Charley said, "She needs to improve her listening skills, and to not have to be so much in control. She needs more flexibility in dealing with different people on the team. She could show more tact and diplomacy, back off a little bit, occasionally bite her tongue. For example, not embarrassing someone in a large meeting."

At the other end of the spectrum was Jerry (style Six). "In my dealings with Chris," he said, "as long as she's getting her way and others subordinate their independence, everything is fine, but if someone offers a different perspective it becomes a confrontation. Things I see as taking initiative, she sees as disrespectful of her authority."

I asked Jerry if Chris had done a good job as CEO.

"She's accomplished a lot for the company," he acknowledged. "The only question in my mind is whether the same results could have been accomplished with a different approach. I think she sees the world as an adversarial place. One way this shows up is her tendency to assume someone has screwed up. And she can really blow people away. For example, if someone doesn’t answer her phone call right away. She conveys that you’re incompetent or that you’re a lightweight. She’s opinionated and overbearing. You can see this in her approach to solving problems. She questions you unmercifully until she finds a weakness and then she exploits it. As much as I like her, I dig in my heels when she does that, as if I were one of her kids!"

Picking up on Jerry's comment that he liked Chris, I asked him to say more about her positive traits.

"There are a lot of things about Chris I find inspiring. She has a tremendous capacity to love and care for the underdog. She has a kind of naïve optimism: what you see is what you get. When she’s at her best she exudes a quality of fearlessness, calmness, gentleness, positiveness. She will do anything for you. But she absolutely doesn’t know how to get inside other peoples’ framework. She doesn’t seem to know that people adapt by incorporating things into their own way of thinking. She just wants them to 'do it!'"

The night before my feedback session with Chris I cut out a set of paper teeth and sewed them onto a small teddy bear (to this day she keeps her "Teddy Bear with Teeth" sitting on her office shelf where she can see it from her desk). I framed her feedback in terms of the obligations of "Charismatic Leadership," summarizing articles for her where the emphasis was twofold:

  1. Charismatic leaders evoke the same kind of "transference" that therapists do. Employees' motivations and reactions, therefore, will derive in part from the leader's symbolic status (as "parent"). This unconscious dynamic explains both the leader's power (which can easily be abused) and the resistance of followers to that power.

  2. Among the most important characteristics of ethical charismatic leaders are the abilities to develop creative, critical thinking in their followers and to stimulate followers to think independently and to question the leader's view.

Chris is a very smart woman and the paradox was not lost on her: for her subordinates to be strong, she had to make herself vulnerable enough to solicit and learn from their criticisms of her style and her point of view. To help her develop more flexible and collaborative negotiating skills, we rehearsed with Fisher and Ury's "Getting to Yes" audiotapes (we got a good laugh at the subtitle: "How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In").

A year later, during a follow-up call, Chris asked me to create a workshop for her and her team using Tom Rusk's book, Ethical Persuasion. It's worth noting that the transformational goal for Eights is to become compassionate and just. It wasn't a coincidence that Chris was attracted to Rusk's book and its method: "This approach persuades us to treat each other with respect, understanding, caring, and fairness."

(See also Conger and Kanungo's Charismatic Leadership: The Elusive Factor in Organizational Effectiveness)