Zelaya: Leadership Fail

Something about the situation in Honduras has been tickling my blog author’s bone (its right above the Hyoid, if you are curious). It’s not simply that power struggles are inherently interesting (they are), or that this nation aces decisions that will irrevocably alter its history (they do), It is not even the fact that this situation challenges those of us that aren’t riveted with the details surroundings Michael Jackson’s death to closely examine our conceptualizations of democracy. These are all fascinating dimensions of the drama unfolding before us, each worthy of at least some collective attention. The aspect of this story that I wish to explore with my readers is that of the apparently monumental failure of leadership on the part of ousted president Zelaya. [Note: Anyone that knows me personally will probably attest to the amount of self-control I am demonstrating by staying on-topic here.]

We don’t often speak of politics when we discus leadership in organizational science circles. I have seen this occur a handful of times, but something about this application of leadership theory and practice inevitably leads someone to fault the author with political bias. The potential for gaining knowledge and understanding is heuristically eroded by such accusations, so I really can’t blame scientists from avoiding these discussions. It’s a shame too. I can think of no grander application for what science can teach us about human leadership and followership than in our political organizations.

Well, I will try to redress this gap in my blog by writing about leadership in political organizations where appropriate. I will readily admit my biases when I encounter them and I hope that my readers keep me honest when I neglect an important angle.

So What Went Wrong With Zelaya?

Questions of the constitutionality of removing a sitting chief executive by force notwithstanding, I see this situation as a compelling case study on the differences between charismatic and transformational leadership. For as much as these leadership approaches have in common (they are too often used interchangeably), charismatic leadership as I understand it focuses more strongly on the leader’s person. Charismatic leaders focus more heavily on themselves, their influence, power, needs and desires than of the group they lead. Towards the beginning of the leadership relationship this arrangement works out fairly well. The goals of the charismatic leader and the followers tend to overlap to a greater degree. At this stage charismatic leaders wish to establish and expand their influence and must focus at least superficially on their followers to achieve their aims. However, once the charismatic leader has achieved some degree of success, their behaviors become more centered on the consolidation of their own influence. This is not always a bad thing, but it occasionally goes against the interests of their followers. At this point followers must decide whether to accept the new direction chosen for them, or to break from their leader and the costs associated with that.

It is clear that Zelaya still has plenty of supporters in Honduras. It is also pretty clear that Zelaya ignored or alienated critical stakeholders in his organization. CEO’s seldom have to worry about being stripped of their power through military or para-military action; the worst that they have to face is being discredited and finding a way of constructively spending their golden parachute (I wonder what direction GM would have taken had its shareholders been armed with AK-47’s). Had Zelaya maintained his relationships with legislators, jurists and/or military leaders, he may very well have been elected president on a more permanent basis. Sadly (for Zelaya), he did not believe he could possibly fail and that is perhaps the biggest flaw with charismatic leaders. At some point they begin to see themselves as infallible. What’s the big lesson here? Don’t believe your own hype!


~ by George Guajardo on July 12, 2009.

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