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What Difference Does Charisma Make?

Colorful leaders inspire, but they may have unexpected limits.


Pacing in a red hoodie, punctuating his words with a hand wave, he implored those kneeling around him not to be "selfish" in the struggle ahead and to take fate into their own hands: "You control the outcomes of everything that happens to you, by the decisions you make, your preparation, and your actions." In this locker-room speech just before a championship game, Florida State University football coach Jimbo Fisher vividly deployed what scholars consider the core elements of charismatic leadership, including a focus on values, an evocative message, and an emotional edge. And his team won.

But how much difference does charisma really make? Recent studies have probed the nature of charismatic leaders' power to inspire—and also the ways in which they might fall short.

A key strength of charismatic leaders, researchers believe, is an ability to signal to employees, athletes, or citizens that accepting costs in pursuit of a common goal is worthwhile because others are likely to join in. "If I'm a first lieutenant and I'm telling my men to charge into battle, but I give more of a duck's quack than a lion's roar, the person beside me is not going to believe that the others are going to charge," says John Antonakis, a researcher of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne. Some experimental evidence indicates that even a minimal level of exposure to a charismatic person can encourage people to be more cooperative: Psychologists Mark van Vugt and Allen Grabo at VU University Amsterdam found that participants who first watched a charismatic TED speaker or thought about a charismatic person made more prosocial choices in certain economic games.

Leaders who exhibit energy and enthusiasm and attract others to them could also influence their followers' sense of how they are treated. One set of studies showed that employees who rated their supervisors higher on charismatic qualities also tended to rate them as fairer.

As useful a motivating force as charisma may be, however, new research suggests that the people who strike us as the most charismatic are not necessarily the most fit to lead. Studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that business leaders' ratings on a set of traits associated with charismatic leadership (including boldness and imaginativeness) had a complicated relationship with appraisals of their ability. Leaders who rated themselves either high or low on the traits linked to charismatic leadership were deemed less effective by coworkers, on average, than those who gave themselves moderate ratings.

While being highly charismatic did not seem harmful in itself, those who were highest on the traits in question tended to recieve lower marks on operational behaviors, which include "monitoring the implementation of strategic plans and getting involved in solving day-to-day problems," according to Jasmine Vergauwe, a Ph.D. student at Ghent University who co-conducted the research. "Highly charismatic leaders are mainly interested in the bigger picture and long-term objectives," she explains. A lack of interest in keeping the ship running smoothly might make dynamic people less worthy captains.

That doesn't mean charismatic leaders will always disappoint us. What's critical is that a leader's charms don't overshadow key elements of effective leadership, like expertise in one's chosen domain. Such assets are the "base of the cake," Antonakis says. "What makes the cake enticing is the icing and the cherry on the top—and that's charisma."

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