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How We Can See Past The Allure Of Charismatic Leaders

There are several dark sides to charisma–here’s how to get over our delusional relationships with charming leaders.

How We Can See Past The Allure Of Charismatic Leaders
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Charisma has long prevailed as one of the most celebrated attributes of leadership. A global survey evaluating everyday perceptions of leadership across 62 countries identified “charismatic” and “inspirational” as two of the most recurrent attributes linked to leadership. Indeed, most people struggle to name a famous leader who does not exude charisma, and after decades of mass-media penetration in worlds as diverse as sports, politics, and business, we seem to have habituated to the idea that leaders are worthless unless they have charisma.

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Yet there’s actually little evidence that charisma helps leaders be more effective. On the contrary, charisma often has the reverse effect because it helps leaders deceive and manipulate their followers by masking their own incompetence. From a psychological point of view, leadership is primarily a process of influence, but there’s no real benefit for followers in being strongly influenced by someone who is clueless. So when leaders are charismatic but lack good judgment, vision, or the ability to build effective teams, they can be pretty destructive. It’s a bit like giving a loaded machine gun to an idiot.

It’s also clear that charisma has a dark side, and the more influential the leader, the more toxic this dark side will be. Most notably, there’s a close connection between charisma and narcissism, a dark-side personality trait associated with “a grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with success and power, a sense of infallibility, and a supreme confidence in [one’s] ability and intelligence.” This association explains why charismatic leaders are usually arrogant and entitled–try thinking of a charismatic leader who isn’t.

Although these qualities have seductive powers, the personal advantages they confer to the leader–helping them advance their careers–come at a high cost to their teams and organizations, who, in the long term, would be much better off with humble and self-critical leaders. It’s therefore inexplicable that much of the business world–allegedly a rational and economically driven environment–rewards narcissistic leaders with higher pay.

Decades of academic research have shown that dark-side personality tests can predict the effect that charismatic leaders have on their subordinates and businesses. In an impressive recent synthesis of 256 studies, several dark-side personality traits that underpin charisma–bold, mischievous, colorful, and imaginative–were negatively related to managerial trustworthiness, employee engagement, dependability, and social skills.

Although mild levels of narcissism may be beneficial, higher levels are associated with leadership derailment. This finding has been replicated in professional sports, the military, business, and of course politics.

Unsurprisingly, it’s very easy to come up with a long list of failed male leaders who relied primarily on their charisma, while female ones are harder to recall. This is because women are typically selected into leadership positions as a result of their competence rather than charisma.

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Equating charisma with good leadership, then, exacerbates sexism because men are much more likely to be deemed charismatic than women. Even though charisma is in the eye of the beholder, such perceptions are heavily biased by the leader’s biological sex. Needless to say, people’s perceptions of leadership talent bear little resemblance with their actual competence: Men are usually perceived as more leader-like, yet studies suggest that the reverse is actually true.

So, what can we do to resist the charisma cult? There are three obvious suggestions:

1. Distrust Our Instincts

This applies both to decision makers and followers. If you are evaluating candidates’ potential for a leadership role, be aware that the most intuitive and seemingly effective methods are largely inadequate to judge a person’s competence. Most notably, narcissists and psychopaths can perform highly on interviews because they have charisma. Likewise, if you are trying to decide whom you should follow, focus on substance rather than style.

2. Look For Feminine Personality Characteristics

Altruism, sociability, EQ, and interpersonal sensitivity all mitigate the destructive effects of leadership. Likewise, absence of masculine traits, such as aggression, overconfidence, and risk-taking, will increase the probability that the leader will look after the team. In short, instead of encouraging women to lead more like men, we would benefit enormously by getting men to lead more like women.

3. Ignore The Hype

We need to understand that the only objective way of evaluating the performance of leaders is by examining what effect they have on their teams and followers. Who cares if they attract millions of social media fans or monopolize the cover of magazines? The key is whether they’re capable of building high-performing teams, and, at a social level, whether they can have a positive cultural impact and upgrade people’s living conditions. If they can’t, they will be just footnotes to Kanye and Kim.