How To Avoid Being Subtly Manipulated By Charismatic People

Charisma itself can mask someone’s motives, making group-minded and self-interested leaders sound the same.

How To Avoid Being Subtly Manipulated By Charismatic People
[Photo: Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

Charisma has a dark side. We’re often attracted to charismatic people, even though it can mask less-than-benign agendas.


Social scientists, including Robert J. House and Jane Howell, with research beginning in the early 1990s, have since found that there are actually two types of charismatic leaders: Some are out for the greater good (sometimes called “GG” leaders for short), while others are primarily interested in the “greater me” (“GM”). The former use their people skills to serve collective needs–an enterprise, community, or an entire country. But the latter draw on those same skills and resources to serve themselves and advance their own interests.

Many of us think we know arrogance and narcissism when we see it, but that isn’t always the case. In practice, it can be tricky telling these two types of charisma apart. Self-interested leaders talk the same talk as those who genuinely care about the needs of the group. If both leaders sound the same, how can you know which one to follow?

Broaden Your Lens Of Observation

First, stop just listening to what leaders say in isolation. Charisma often makes it easy for us to be captivated by someone’s message at the expense of the surrounding context and other factors. Instead, make a conscious effort to observe the dynamics of the team or teams surrounding the charismatic leader you’re tuned into.

There are three key differences in the way the teams of the two types of leaders interact with each other and their leaders:

1. Both can articulate a compelling vision, but only “greater good” leaders actually involve others in realizing it. This is the cue to notice. People on these teams are energized more by their leaders’ principles and ideas, and they’re less excited merely by persona.

2. Collectivist leaders talk more in terms of challenges, opportunities, and reaching potential, whereas self-interested leaders focus on competitors and villianizing the opposition. Both types pay careful attention to the competitive landscape, though, so listen for leaders who spend more time attacking others than they do articulating possibilities.


3. Notice the ways they display confidence. Both types of charismatic leader are outwardly confident, but “GM” leaders have more fragile egos. That’s why they surround themselves with people who adore them and only disagree for show. “GG” leaders are more comfortable with honest pushback and invite smart people into their circle who offer totally different perspectives. Their sense of self-confidence isn’t shaken by disagreement.

How Both Types Of Leader Can Help Or Hurt You

Both types of leader can have a profound effect on your organization and your career. Under the guidance of a more group-focused leader, workplaces generally are psychologically safer environments where people have the space they need to develop. Over time, team members grow more trusting and develop tighter relationships with their leader as well as with each other.

Crucially, these teams can function and carry on with their work, even when their leaders aren’t present–they have the freedom and mutual encouragement in order to self-organize. Following self-interested leaders, on the other hand, can seriously harm your career. Their leadership typically disappoints: You might buy into their grand vision, only to realize that the grandiosity never extended past the leader’s own persona. You might work really hard on their behalf, thinking they’re advocating or looking out for you, when in fact you may not even be on their radar.

The danger of following a charismatic leader who’s more self-absorbed is that they may be more interested in using your goals and aspirations to support their own; they might differ considerably, but this type of leader will try to make that gap hard to perceive. Ultimately, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll get thrown under the bus or will emerge with a damaged reputation.

There’s an important caveat here, though: When it comes down to human motivation, we’re all mixed bags, so to speak– of looking out for ourselves and looking out for the greater good. It’s rare, if not impossible, to find somebody who’s all about subordinating their personal goals to the interests of the group.

Still, it’s wise to follow people who are capable of rising to the occasion and looking out for the people without whom they couldn’t achieve what they’re aiming to do–or at least leaders who do that the greatest percentage of the time. Charisma can be deceiving and seductive, but by paying attention to some of these less obvious cues, you can get smarter about who to follow and who to disregard.


Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction. She is the author of The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self.