The Steinhoff crash wiped more than R200 billion off the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, erased more than half the wealth of tycoon Christo Wiese and knocked the pension funds of millions of ordinary South Africans.

“Enron is the Olympic Gold of corporate fraud. Enron lost R 693 billion, Steinhoff at its peak lost R 350 billion. This makes Steinhoff the largest corporate fraud, globally, of the last two decades”, writes Rob Rose in ‘Steinheist’

The person who engineered the growth of Steinhoff and is the cause of its fall is Markus Jooste. Rob Rose writes, “Markus Jooste may not have been arrested and the final verdict will be that of the court. Given the ineptitude of the country’s prosecutors, there’s even a real prospect that he might never have to answer to criminal charges. But it doesn’t really matter. Frozen out of his community, he’s a prisoner already”.

“Jooste had lieutenants who did everything for him. Everyone deferred to Markus, they wouldn’t challenge his decisions. Markus was untouchable. His own executives didn’t have the stomach to challenge him, fearing the ferocity of his ridicule – the cult of Marcus was kept alive by the culture of fear. His empire was expanding, everyone was making money, and so he could get away with it”.

A veteran journalist and radio presenter David O’Sullivan after an altercation with Jooste thought “Who does this guy think he is? Screw him”, writes Rose.

Not only were Jooste’s sycophants kept in the dark by him, Christo Wiese – a lawyer and astute businessman – was fooled by him. Deloitte, the Steinhoff auditors, asked Wiese: “Do you trust Markus? Are you kidding he replied. I did a deal with him based on just a handshake in 2014. We agreed that Steinhoff would take over my company Pepkor, and we shook on it. You don’t do a R62 billion deal based only on a ‘handshake’ unless you trust someone entirely”.

How did the “Cult of Markus” grow and thrive? How did this leader of a business cult – who was obviously charismatic – hoodwink so many people? Well for one thing the Steinhoff executives would never challenge Jooste, they trusted him and loyalty to him was everything, they knew that he aggressively attacked anyone who was negative about the group. “Others might not have trusted him but they still were willing to hitch themselves to Jooste’s chariot, secure in their religious faith in him as a deal-spinning messiah. No one understood the balance sheet, but if you were part of the cult of believers, you were willing to leap into the darkness anyway”, wrote Rose.

Reading “Steinheist” by Rob Rose has driven me to reflect on charismatic leaders. Why can we be so easily influenced and how can we as leaders lead people?

Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus defines Charisma as “The quality, appeal, magnetism, force of personality or power of an individual to attract, influence and inspire people”. Adam Grant writes “Charismatic leaders can leave us so awestruck that we become dumbstruck, and fail to critically evaluate their visions”, he continues, “When evaluating leaders, focus less on their ability to inspire and more on the values and ideas they champion”.

A Business School Professor cautions on “The dark side of charisma: like it or not charisma matters when it comes to leadership. We should be aware of the power that persuasion can have on us”. Peter Drucker went further and said he’d never come across a great leader who was charismatic”. Sergei Brovkin adds “….except for Hitler, Stalin and Mao – but he called them ‘misleadesrs’ “.

What can we say about leaders like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jnr, Gandhi, Winston Churchill? What do we say about Steve Jobs or Markus Jooste?

On the surface, charismatic individuals seem to have little in common – besides being in positions of influence and leadership – but they all are recognized as having that “something special” that is charisma. Ultimately charisma is the result of excellent communication and interpersonal skills. What is more, these skills can be learned and developed to get people on their side.

Some elements of charisma that are seen in charismatic people are:

  • Confidence
  • Optimism
  • They are interesting and interested
  • Intelligent
  • Assertive
  • Attentive to detail
  • Have emotional sensitivity, expressiveness and control
  • Strong body language
  • Focus on others and are good listeners

Attached is a document with notes on charisma that I have collected and might be of interest to you. Good luck with your own reflection on leadership – your own and of others who influence you.


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