On Charismatic Leadership

By Ryne A. Sherman

Everyone agrees that effective leaders are trustworthy, competent, and make good decisions in a timely fashion. When it comes to charisma, however, opinions vary widely. Some say charisma is an essential quality of effective leadership. Others say charisma’s antonym—humility—is an essential quality of effective leadership. So, which is it? On the one hand, we want leaders who inspire us and put forward a vision for the future. On the other hand, we want leaders who listen to others and share credit with the team. Are charismatic leaders effective or not?

At long last, some research finally offers a scientifically-based answer to this question. And the conclusion may come as a surprise: when it comes to charisma and humility, effective leaders have both. In this article, I highlight the key findings of the study, relate it to current thinking about charisma, and point out practical implications for coaching and leadership development.

In their paper, Jasmine Vergauwe, Bart Wille, Joeri Hofmans, Rob Kaiser, and Filip De Fruyt show that charismatic people describe themselves as talkative, inventive, energetic, and original. They also describe themselves as good-looking, persevering, and ingenious. In contrast, others describe these individuals only as talkative, energetic, and original, not as good looking and persevering. Thus, charismatic individuals have inflated views of themselves that are inconsistent with how other people see them.

Second, and most importantly, the researchers examined the relationship between charisma and overall effectiveness in a sample of over 300 business leaders. Once again, self-ratings of overall effectiveness were inconsistent with coworker ratings: charisma scores significantly predicted self-rated effectiveness (r = .29), whereas the charisma scores were uncorrelated with coworker-rated effectiveness. But the story didn’t end there.

There was a significant curvilinear relationship between charisma scores and coworker-rated effectiveness. According to coworkers, some degree of charisma – neither too little nor too much – predicted the highest levels of effectiveness. The Figure tells the story. Coworkers indicated that those managers with scores slightly above the average in a large sample of working adults (i.e., about the 60th percentile) were the most effective leaders. After that, more charisma predicted decreasing effectiveness. In contrast, the higher the self-rated charisma, the higher the self-rating for effectiveness. But other people are always the best judge of a person’s performance.

At about the 70th percentile, coworkers start to see the dark side of charisma—where confidence becomes arrogance, risk-taking gets reckless, social presence looks melodramatic, and strong vision becomes ungrounded grandiosity. But these highly charismatic leaders can’t see the downside, and in fact see themselves as extraordinarily effective leaders. Study co-author Rob Kaiser refers to this divergence of opinion at the highest levels of charisma as “the gradient of delusion.”

The moral of this story will be familiar to readers of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Leaders with just the right amount of charisma, neither too little nor too much, are the most effective. Some charisma is desirable; without any spark, leaders lack the confidence, charm, vision, and flair needed to inspire others. But when it comes to charisma, there is clearly such a thing as too much of a good thing: we also need leaders who are down to earth, receptive to feedback, and humble.

This research has three practical implications. First, we should never rely on self-assessments of effectiveness or workplace performance. Delusional charismatics will always rate their performance as far greater than the reality. Reputation is where the action is, and other people own your reputation.

Second, organizations need to be wary of potential leaders who show too much charisma. While they excel at grabbing the attention of senior leaders, they tend to be all bluster and no substance. At the same time, organizations need to make a concerted effort to identify potential leaders who show more humility. Such individuals are often overlooked in favor of the more pompous charismatics, but employees of humble leaders are more engaged, satisfied, and productive.

Third, those working in coaching or leadership development need strategies for bringing highly charismatic leaders back to reality. Coworker feedback is obviously one way to help charismatics calibrate their excessively rosy self-appraisals. Charismatic leaders can also benefit from working with a partner who provides a practical foil to their unrealistic self-beliefs. Such a person needs to be trusted by the larger-than-life charismatic; they need the insight not to be taken in by the charismatic’s charm, and they need to be able to steer charismatic leaders back on track—and prevent them from going over the edge.

The big picture perspective is this: sometimes our strengths (e.g., the ability to inspire and motivate others) can be weaknesses when we overdo them or rely on them too much. The most effective leaders are trustworthy, competent and good-decision makers, but are also capable of setting a vision for the team without overdoing it.

The international authority in personality assessment, Hogan Assessments has three decades of experience reducing turnover and increasing productivity by helping businesses hire the right people, develop key talent, and evaluate leadership potential. Grounded in a more than a century of science, the Hogan assessments predict job performance by assessing normal personality, derailment characteristics, and core values. Hogan’s portfolio of employee selection, development and leadership tools allow companies to better manage their most valuable assets – their people. www.hoganassessments.com