Capturing Charisma

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The last Knowledge Marketing Watch“Changing of the Guard” – examined what happens to organizational memory when people leave. In response, one reader emailed a story about his cousin who died of cancer while an employee of a satellite communications company. The man spent his final days, in bed, being pumped by fellow executives for technical details about the operation of remote ground stations for satellite tracking. This crucial information was in his head but nowhere else

Death brings me back to the topic via Wall Street Journal writer Jeff Zaslow’s interesting comments (December 8, 2005) about transferring mission-critical knowledge: “Replacing Superman: How to Go Forward After a Charismatic Founder Dies.”

Nonprofits, Zaslow writes, are often fueled by the charisma of one visionary person; they are the brand. Take that person away and it becomes very difficult for the organization to carry-on. He recounts the impact of Christopher Reeve’s death on the foundation Reeve established to study spinal cord injuries. Or, rather, the impact it might have had…because this has a “happy” ending.

It’s not enough to have a worthy cause: nonprofit success requires positioning, messaging, and selling. The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation relied on Reeve’s magnetism to do all three. Luckily his charisma proved up to the task. When a leader has a personal – and very public – brand like Reeve’s, it directly communicates what the organization stands for to stakeholders and inspires employees to do the job they’re meant to do.

Reeve proved good charisma can be important to corporate health, but his deftness also illustrates a downside. So dependant was the foundation on his ability to attract media attention and cajole donors, says Zaslow, that Reeve’s sudden death could easily have triggered its closure. How would the foundation adjust to the death of its brand name and primary storyteller?

Fortunately, visionary leadership anticipated misfortune. Quietly, and well-before Reeve’s illness, the foundation’s president, Kathy Lewis, insisted on examining the organization’s identity-dependence on Reeve’s personal brand. She recognized Reeve’s ideas had not been effectively institutionalized, and that it was not enough for Reeve to merely inspire foundation employees. One day he would be out of the picture and it would be their responsibility to carry the dream forward. Unless they could tell his story in their own words, unless they could sell Reeve’s passion and strength themselves, awareness would diminish and the dream would die.

Ensuring Reeve’s knowledge was common property, and central to the foundation’s internal brand, became a priority. Thanks to this insight the “man of steel” may prove stronger in death than in life.

This is what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras recommend in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Recognizing that a personal and egocentric ideology can’t guide and inspire a company after the leader’s departure, these authors advise readers to be more interested in making charisma subservient to the organization as a whole. Visionary companies, they say, take steps to ensure ideology transcends specific individuals; they share knowledge collectively so the organization, instead of any one leader, is recognized as the ultimate creation.

Abandoning the founder’s identity appears to be having the opposite effect at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Jed Perl’s New Republic article (”Arrivederci MoMA,” February 6, 2006) is a scathing indictment of the Museum of Modern Art a year after its re-opening, and charges CEO Glenn Lowry with erasing the organization’s carefully institutionalized seventy-five year old legacy.

The intellectual authority created by MoMA founder Alfred Barr, his vision, zeal and “megalomaniacal energy,” has, under Lowry, become intellectually “bland.” Once a great museum stirring great debates, the new MoMA, Perl writes, “is now generally regarded as a faceless juggernaut,” because the old and deeply-felt sense of something “that makes a connection between the past and the present” is gone.

Not surprisingly, the excuse is money: Lowry recognizes museum trustees and tourists generate more cash than the museum’s old core constituency of art lovers. Organizations need income if their work is to be sustained – a fact which even Barr recognized: he was responsible, Perl notes, for setting up the museum world’s first publicity department and “almost single-handedly developed the concept of outreach to the wider community.”

But Perl questions the long-term cost to the museum’s mission and identity if it continues catering to the fickle whims of people not truly dedicated to the museum and its work. By replacing Barr’s education-focused institutional identity with an identity as “a mall in which Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian are as interchangeable as H&M, Target, and the Gap,” Perl believes Lowry undermines the firm foundation on which the MoMA identity has for so long rested.

The art lovers should be given their due. Barr fed their interests: his collection-focused content made the intellection and emotional connections that made building a lasting community possible. They, in turn, helped build the name brand that now attracts tourists, trustees, and their dollars. It was a process that breathed life into the MoMA’s brand. Perl’s description of the Lowry MoMA, by contrast, makes it seem as if it is kept alive with a defibrillator.

Organizations should evolve and be able to reflect the present – as, no doubt, Barr intended the MoMA to do – but they have to remain true to core values. Jim Collins’s most recent monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors (2005) promotes branding as a solution for nonprofits, but he cautions that it is consistency over time that distinguishes the truly great, consistency with core values.

The tourists and the trustees so coveted by the current MoMA administration are attracted by a brand nurtured by managers who knew how to build the kind of meaningful brand Collins recommends, one based on long associations. If the Modern’s brand deteriorates – because its short-term tactics ignore the values of MoMA’s core constituency – the tourists will stop attending, and the trustees will stop giving. Then what?

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 23 February 2006)

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