Too much charisma can sink a leader

Leadership is about more than superficial charm, says executive coach Susy Roberts.

by Susy Roberts
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2018

Bill Clinton is said to be able to silence a room simply by walking through the door, such is his charisma. And while his charm saw him serve two arguably successful terms, it also infamously saw him almost impeached for his extra-curricular activities in the Oval office.

Charisma is an essential quality in any leader. It excites, inspires and generates camaraderie among teams and colleagues. But there’s a very fine line between charismatic and positive leadership that drives business results, and a superficial charm that verges on narcissism. 

The best leaders use positive encouragement to draw out qualities from their teams and colleagues. They have an innate ability to identify what drives people, and the capability to ensure that they are effectively challenged in a way that will benefit the organisation as a whole. They leave individuals feeling valued and driven, and have the vision required to put together teams that play to each other’s strengths.

Without this insight, the charismatic leader is simply a very good actor who knows how to play a part to get what they want, often with the least amount of effort. For teams and colleagues, this can be confusing and disorientating. They see a charming leader with a brilliant reputation and a presence that fills the room - but they’re not being developed personally because there is no substance or strategic direction behind the persuasive smile.

There are two widely recognised types of charismatic leader – socialised and personalised (House and Howell, 1992). The socialised leader will play an integral role in promoting values and ethics across the team and organisation. They’ll use their charisma and charm to learn where change is needed, encourage individuals to contribute and make customers, guests and suppliers feel valued.

The personalised charismatic leader, while superficially charming, is entirely self-serving. The vast difference in what they say or appear to do and what they actually do is confusing, disorientating and damaging to individuals and organisations.

This dark side to charisma was summarised by Gury Yukl in his 2006 book, Leadership in Organisations.

The excessive confidence of the negatively charismatic leader will mask flaws and dangers in their ideas, using their charm to persuade colleagues to adopt potentially damaging policies. Dependence on the personalised charismatic leader will inhibit the development of competent successors, creating an eventual leadership crisis, and their inability to recognise their own failings will reduce organisational learning.

When Uber experienced months of scandal – allegations of spying, institutionalised sexual harassment and underpaying drivers, to name a few – the public (and, more importantly, Uber’s investors) found it impossible to separate the disasters from the company’s founder Travis Kalanick.

The charismatic former CEO built a multi-billion pound empire, but his charming public-facing media persona was undermined by a series of allegations and videos, which resulted in him ultimately admitting his leadership style was flawed, saying, "this is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it."

The board agreed, and Uber’s investors decided that the company needed to disassociate itself from its founder when his negative charisma became too damaging for the company.

Charming people can be very manipulative, and what on the surface can be seen as engaging and motivating can quickly become incredibly frustrating when the charismatic leader dominates board meetings and peer groups but fails to deliver the support teams need to produce results.

Charisma needs to be combined with the vision, knowledge and humility to drive business results – without that, it’s simply an oversized ego.

Susy Roberts is an executive coach and founder of people development consultant Hunter Roberts

Image credit: Lukas/Pexels

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