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Why charismatic leaders can be so dangerous at work

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Former US president Donald Trump. Photo: Tom Brenner/Reuters
Former US president Donald Trump. Photo: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Being charismatic is often seen as a powerful trait in a manager. Not only are these leaders confident, able to express themselves clearly and charm others, their allure is believed to motivate teams to produce positive results for businesses.

It’s difficult to think of a leader who doesn’t have some degree of charisma. After all, leaders need to be engaging and cause others to want to listen to them. But charisma has downsides too - and in some cases, an overly charismatic leader can be disastrous for companies.

“One of the biggest issues of valuing charisma as a leadership trait is that it is subjective. Much like beauty, charisma is in the eye of the beholder,” says Hanna Andersen, leadership coach and founder of the career coaching organisation As We Are.

“Many leaders who we ascribe charisma to display excessive confidence and narcissism,” she says. “Narcissistic leaders are more likely to make decisions that benefit them as an individual rather than the company, employees or customers. This could lead to excessive risk and bad decisions.”

As leaders, narcissists often fail. Overly confident and arrogant leaders can have a pathological need for admiration and are often blinded by their own perceived ability, even when it is lacking. They will typically look after their own needs without considering other people around them, which can spell disaster for a company.

READ MORE: Why the pandemic has changed what we want in a leader

Research led by Jennifer Chatman, a professor of organisational management at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, found narcissists “infect” the culture of an organisation like a virus, leading to dramatically lower levels of collaboration and integrity at all levels. They’re also more likely to get their companies involved in more lawsuits.

And although charismatic leaders can be captivating, this isn’t always a good thing. In 2015, a study by the University of Cambridge found that charismatic leaders tend to overwhelm their organisations and cause their followers to “suppress” their emotions. These “awestruck” followers tend to have lower job satisfaction and may be less likely to collaborate with others too, negatively impacting organisations in the long-term.

Essentially, being drawn in by a leader’s charisma can leave us “blind” to their bad habits. “Because we can’t quite put our finger on charisma, it is a bit like love,” she explains. “We will want to defend the decision of the charismatic leader in order to confirm our suspicion that they are great at it.

India's prime minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India, on 7 March. Photo: Bikas Das/AP
India's prime minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India, on 7 March. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

“We are more likely to forgive their mistakes or blame the circumstances rather than their decision making,” Anderson says. “Conversely for humble leaders, who often perform much better, we will notice all mistakes and hold them to higher account.”

Although we place a lot of emphasis on charisma as a positive characteristic in leaders, research suggests it isn’t actually such a big deal. In a series of five studies, researchers at Michigan State University found bosses who were supportive and set clear expectations – but weren’t necessarily transformational leaders with grand visions – were able to effectively motivate their employees.

READ MORE: Why are we still uncomfortable with female leaders?

“Effective leadership may be based in part on a leader’s ability to recognise when a particular mental state is needed in their employees and to adapt their own mental state and their behaviours to elicit that mindset,” said Brent Scott, an MSU professor of management and the co-author of the study.

“Part of the story here is that you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to be an effective leader. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing.”

The researchers said it was unrealistic to think that every boss can be a “transformational leader” all of the time - aka, someone charismatic with grand visions. Sometimes, a more conservative, risk-prevention approach is far better.

Rather than falling for charismatic charm, Anderson advises businesses to improve their leadership by making use of data which shows concrete leadership traits that are proven to be effective.

“Whilst we continue to value intangible qualities such as charisma, we will not see improvements,” she says. “When we place humble, person-centred leadership at the forefront, we will see more collaborative and balanced decisions which have positive outcomes for profit, people and our planet.”

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