Charismatic leadership has its downsides

Charisma may help leaders get to power but it can also disguise their incompetence and inability to do the job.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2016

When people are asked to describe the key qualities of leaders, they will usually include 'charismatic' among their chosen traits. Indeed, the notion that good leaders should have charisma is so embedded in popular culture that it is hard to even think of a famous leader who lacks it (except, of course, for Angela Merkel).

Although definitions vary, charisma generally refers to a set of psychological attributes that make some individuals seem more likeable, influential and heroic than others. When Max Weber coined the term, his focus was political leadership, but it has since been used in relation to any form of leadership, including - think of TED talks - charismatic thought-leaders.

If you are a leader, the benefits of charisma are hard to dispute: it will help you persuade and inspire your subordinates, perhaps even turn them into devoted fans or groupies. Yet when charismatic leaders lack the more substantial ingredients of leadership potential (eg, ability, self-awareness, and concern for others), their toxic charm will disguise their incompetence. In other words, charisma erodes the difference between perceived and actual leadership effectiveness, enabling inept leaders to succeed.

In line, several studies have shown that charismatic leaders (including CEOs) tend to earn more even when their firms perform worse. Charisma has also been positively linked to narcissism, which hinders leaders' ability to focus on the wellbeing of their subordinates. Furthermore, because these types of leaders are generally more entitled and overconfident, they are less self-aware and more immune to negative feedback, except when they react defensively or aggressively to it. Finally, since charisma is mostly a male-normative trait - in virtually every culture laypeople perceive men as more charismatic than women - selecting leaders on this attribute has adverse impact on women.

Most businesses, and most countries, are led by charismatic leaders, and it is clear that this quality has played a big role in propelling these individuals to positions of power. What is less clear, however, is that they are capable of doing a good job. Most people hate their bosses and their politicians. It seems, then, that the effects of charisma wear off after a while. Sadly, the lesson is rarely learned, and the mistakes too often repeated. Trump is the norm, not the exception.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. Follow Professor Chamorro-Premuzic on Twitter: @drtcp

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