Very charismatic leaders do often not perform better than the least charismatic.
Charisma is considered by many to be important for leaders. For example, charisma is often considered a key element in transformational leadership. Research in this area, however, suggests that it can be too much of a good thing, also when it comes to leaders' charisma.
Charisma is a vague concept. There is great disagreement, both among researchers and practitioners, about what charisma really is and where it comes from. A large number of research studies therefore try to shed light on this, as well as the significance of charisma for good leadership.
A special talent
Originally, charisma was associated with a "gift" or a very special talent that only a few had, by virtue of their personality and aura. This was thought to give them a particularly strong and almost inexplicable attractiveness and influence over others.
In recent times, the concept of charisma has become more common. Charisma is no longer seen as something completely unusual.
Some simply view charisma as a set of skills that can be learned. For example, renowned management researcher John Antonakis argues that most leaders can gain more charisma by learning techniques to appeal to emotions, common ideals and values, and to appear stronger and more confident. Some of the techniques are about verbal skills, ie well-known rhetorical moves, while others are about active, energetic, and varied body language. Antonakis' research findings suggest that many who practice these techniques both seem more charismatic and have greater influence. But it requires a lot of training, and some have better prerequisites than others by virtue of their personality and abilities.
Therefore, many researchers view charisma as something primarily related to certain personality traits. People who are seen by many as charismatic are usually far above average, confident, self-satisfied, and socially dominant. In addition, they also often have a strong, inner conviction that what they want is right and important. Charismatic people are also often energetic, risk-averse and unpredictable, and they like the attention of others.
Effective leaders, or?
Research by Vergauwe and colleagues shows that the higher the leaders score on precisely these traits, the better and more effective leaders they believe they are. But their research findings also suggest that, like many other things, charisma can be too much of a good thing, and that something in between is best.
The most charismatic leaders have a strong tendency to overestimate themselves and their leadership skills. When they are judged by their co-workers, management colleagues and senior leaders, they are judged to be significantly worse than they think, and not as better or more effective than the least charismatic leaders. On the contrary, it is the leaders with moderate charisma who are considered most effective.
One of the possible explanations the researchers examined was the type of tasks the leaders spent their time and energy on. The findings indicate that the most charismatic leaders are too preoccupied with spending their time and energy making plans for the future, and too little with organizing and getting things done in a systematic way. Leaders who, on the other hand, have moderate charisma, are easier to achieve a better balance between these two important types of leadership tasks and are therefore also considered to be significantly more effective in their leadership role overall.
These findings give reason to reflect on the fascination many have with very charismatic leaders, many of whom are cultivated as heroes. There is also reason to warn recruiters against being charmed by the most charismatic candidates for a leadership position.
- The double-edged sword of leader charisma. Vergauwe mfl. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018.
- Can charisma be taught? Antonakis mfl. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2011