Why a charisma overdose in leaders can be too much of a good thing

Charisma is often thought of as an ideal personality trait – but does it encourage leaders to focus only on goals, rather than the finer detail of how you actually get there?

From self-help books to YouTube videos, from public-speaking clubs like Toastmasters to public-speaking gurus like Tony Robbins, and from Jennifer Lawrence to Will Smith, Rihanna and George Clooney, we’re surrounded by numerous, glittering reasons to boost our charisma. It’s an inescapable, mesmerising state of mind – and a powerful amplifier for body language, too.

For many people, charisma feels like a kind of riddle that they’re itching to crack. Everyone who’s famous and successful seems to have a spare bottle of it that they can uncork, swig and bask in the effects of, wherever they go. We gaze at the bottomless energies, and easy-going media personas, of business leaders such as Richard Branson and Tim Cook – or of top figures in the Arts world, such as the Young Vic’s new artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah – and we wonder where they get their charisma from, and how we could get it, too.

Charisma is, in many ways, a kind of drug. But as with any drug, there’s a line of smallprint on the packaging warning us, ‘Results may vary’ – and an ever-present danger of getting high on your own supply.

That danger has now flashed up on the radar screens of five behavioural researchers, whose work is covered in the Harvard Business Review. According to their study – which encompassed 800 business leaders around the world and 7,500 of their colleagues – charisma is far from a universal panacea that only ever leads to benevolent results. In fact, it can be every bit as much of a hindrance as a drastic shortfall of personal oomph.

In order to determine charisma’s impacts upon workplace effectiveness, the researchers first had to identify exactly what charisma is. While they knew that, to a large extent, charisma is in the eye of the beholder, they also understood that they had to unpack how it arises from a combination of qualities within an individual’s personality. So they scored their leadership subjects on a handful of specific tendencies: bold, colourful, mischievous, imaginative, energetic, assertive and likely to generate enthusiasm.

Following that scoring process, the researchers dipped into the pool of colleagues and associates to gauge how they perceived the leaders’ performance capabilities. Their findings were startling, to say the least. “Consistent with our expectations,” they wrote in the HBR, “we found that as charisma increased, so did perceived effectiveness – but only up to a certain point. As charisma scores continued to increase beyond the 60th percentile, which is just above the average score relative to the general population of working adults, perceived effectiveness started to decline.”

The researchers pointed out that, while they didn’t find any significant relationships between charisma and interpersonal behaviour, they found that highly charismatic leaders were perceived to engage in more strategic, and less operational, behaviour. How, they asked, could this explain lower effectiveness ratings for the most charismatic?

“For highly charismatic leaders,” they noted, “we expected that the costs associated with a lack of operational behaviour would come to outweigh the benefits delivered by strategic behaviour when a certain level of charisma is exceeded. And that’s exactly what we found: Highly charismatic leaders may be strategically ambitious, but this comes at the expense of getting day-to-day work activities executed in a proper manner, which can hurt perceived effectiveness.

“They failed, for example, in managing the day-to-day operations needed to implement their big strategic vision[s], and in taking a methodical approach to getting things done in the near term.”

There are some pretty important points to make, here. Our Inemmo blogs have covered the ‘vision thing’ before, and explored how that quality can manifest itself as a kind of crusading behaviour – the very type of behaviour, in fact, that would make a natural conduit for oodles of charisma. The problem is that a vision is essentially null and void unless a) you have a detailed roadmap of how you’re going to get there, and b) getting there is actually a good idea in the first place.

As we explained in that earlier blog, visions cut both ways: they can express themselves as fantastic, new business ventures that convincingly deliver a sense of affirmation or transformation… or they can be radically misconceived, leading to reputational crises. It is a terrible mistake to think that fulfilling a strategic vision is all about the broad strokes and the primary colours. The day-to-day management involved in bringing a strategic vision to life is actually, in and of itself, strategic. A chess game requires a long succession of moves to determine a victor, and each player must carefully weigh each move to judge whether it supports, or undermines, their overall objective.

The Lumina psychometric tool that Inemmo uses in leadership coaching explains that outcome-focused, goal-fixated leaders can develop a ‘win at all costs’ mentality when they’re in a hyped-up, overextended state. That can produce a tunnel vision which will prevent them from focusing on those crucial, incremental moves. While charisma is clearly a valuable, glamorous asset that can help leaders win people around and take them on a journey, it must be backed with the kind of empathy that will persuade staff that their leaders understand what they need to do in order to reach the required destination.

Like chocolate, charisma is appealing and addictive – but, in the long run, best rationed.

Read the researchers’ full paper on charisma in leadership here

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Image of charismatic gentleman courtesy of Foto Sushi, via Unsplash