The Berserk Warrior

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. Chuck Close talking about the creative process to Charlie Rose, October 28, 2010 I have long believed that leading means capturing the hearts and minds of others. Capturing minds is the stuff of visionary leadership – painting a compelling picture of the future that engages people, focusing on a mission that calls people to use their skills in service of something larger than themselves, keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize. Capturing hearts is something else, more like charismatic leadership – arousing the passions and motivations of followers, through a sort of emotional contagion. I have emphasized the former, more cognitive approach of visionary leadership in my work, advising leaders to articulate a long-range plan for success and invite each employee to support it. This approach assumes inspiration (and faith) occur when people understand the goal and are willing to endure any short-term hardships because they are focused on the bigger picture.

Recently, however, I have been intrigued by charismatic leadership, especially as the world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what the military has coined “VUCA”). Hearts seem to need more tending these days. As a client of mine recently told me, “Forget about long-term incentives and hope for the future. I need something that will get people out of bed and get them excited about coming to work tomorrow.”

What kind of leader does that? Research by Amir Erez and colleagues from the University of Florida (Erez, et al, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008) found that highly charismatic leaders, as measured by levels of excitement, enthusiasm and general arousal levels, produce happier, less negative, more engaged and committed employees than non-charismatic leaders. The type of leadership they studied is what Max Weber originally defined as charismatic authority – an “emotional form of communal relationship” in which emotional expression is unmitigated by cognitive mechanisms. It is the type of charisma exemplified by “the berserk warrior”- the leader who puts it all on the line and who creates “a frenzied commitment to the battle among his comrades [not through] a message to those who he inspires…but due solely to his overtly expressed extreme excitement.” (Greenfield, Reflections on Two Charisma’s, 1985)

Think of Jeremy Renner’s character, Sergeant First Class William James, in the Hurt Locker. At the beginning of the movie, you think he is just crazy, addicted to the adrenaline of war and undoubtedly out of his mind. But as the story develops, you gain respect for his addiction to his job and to “being a consummate professional who has honed his craft to high-wire precision.” You see how he motivates and bonds with his team through his total willingness to commit himself, take risks and pay the personal consequences. He doesn’t seem to possess any ultimate vision nor has any pretenses about the larger purpose of his work. Yet he motivates his team through sheer commitment and dedication to the work itself. Maybe this is the kind of leadership we need in a VUCA world, when it’s difficult to know what to build next or what business strategy will win?

Maybe we need more berserk warriors in our companies who believe what they are doing is right and who back up their belief with the unmitigated courage to act on it?