The Dark Side Of Being A Charismatic Boss

These three examples of high-profile leaders with big personalities will make you reconsider the value of putting an eccentric leader in charge.

Would you like to have an insecure boss? Probably not. Yet, our admiration for confident, charming and ambitious leaders has its problems, too. Although these traits do much to propel people to positions of power, they can, at times, also bring on failures and should be considered risky assets. Sooner or later, self-confidence turns into arrogance and an unrealistic sense of immunity. Ambition turns into greed and prioritizes self-interest over the interest of the team or the organization. Charm is used to manipulate and fool followers, who may keep trusting their managers longer than they should. Consider the following examples:

  • Remember Groupon? In 2010, it was hailed as the “fastest growing company ever," and most of the credit went to founding CEO Andrew Mason, who rejected a $6 billion bid from Google in 2011. Ambitious? Sure. But Groupon is now worth less than half and Andrew Mason is jobless. Likewise, most startups are fueled by the world-changing dreams of highly ambitious entrepreneurs, yet 70% of them are destined to fail and less than 5% may ever grow substantially. In order to succeed, leaders must learn to manage their ambition.

  • Steve Ballmer may be a YouTube sensation, but, under his tenure, Microsoft’s shares have remained as flat as its innovation output. Unsurprisingly, savvy investors see him as “the biggest overhang on Microsoft’s stock” and Forbes described him as "the worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company." Ballmer’s personality epitomizes the profile of many other narcissistic CEO’s, who manage mostly via charm, seduction and intimidation. They are media darlings and self-branding experts but running a business is not a TV show. Unfortunately, charm is a potent promotion weapon—most companies select on interviews and charismatic narcissists interview better than anyone else. They also embezzle shareholders and clients at meetings. In fact, whereas ambition is at worst self-blinding, charm and charisma tend to blind others, which makes them even more toxic.

  • Whatever you think about Marissa Mayer’s ban of remote workers, it was a bold move. However, unless she was just after (even) more media attention, it was also one of the poorest leadership decisions in modern corporate history. It ignores established facts about the science of productivity and takes talent management back to the middle ages. First, there is absolutely no reason to expect poor-performing remote employees to perform well if they turn up at the office. Second, only bosses who are unable to set clear and relevant targets for their employees need to monitor what they are doing and where they are. Third, a substantial proportion of high achievers and exceptional performers in any field are remote workers or telecommuters, who have mastered the art of work-life fusion: forcing them to come to the office will not only disrupt their effective routine, but also demotivate them. Yahoo's competitors must be over the moon about the prospect of hiring some of Marissa Mayer's top talent very soon, and for very good value. The bottom line? Marissa Mayer would not be where she is without her confidence, but she is also likely to fail because of it. Human beings are naturally overconfident, but most of us can't come close to managerial hubris.

Changing the Face of Leadership

Next time you find yourself admiring managers for their intense charm, confidence, and ambition, remember you are probably looking at a future failure. The myth of the charismatic CEO is still alive despite recurrent attempts by academics and social commentators to debunk it. In any organization, industry, and country, the higher you go in the managerial ladder or power hierarchy, the more mischievous, arrogant, and psychopathic people are.

Selecting leaders on their competence rather than confidence, altruistic vision rather than ruthless ambition, and paying less attention to charisma, will promote both organizational effectiveness and social well-being. This will require a radical change in our views of leadership. It will require more companies paying more attention to the humble, low-key, and polite employee who’s potential for leadership may be higher, but is not as immediately outgoing.

Until then, the very traits that help employees advance their careers will often also contribute to an eventual downfall.

[Image: Flickr user Kelvyn Skee]

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