Too Much Charisma Is Bad for Leadership

Leaders have to be charismatic, but only to a point.

Posted Mar 26, 2018

CC0 by dannymena88 via Pixabay
Source: CC0 by dannymena88 via Pixabay

The word charisma is a blanket term for a set of behaviors or traits a person has that make them engaging and cause others to want to listen to them and follow them.  It is hard to be a good leader without some degree of charisma. Great leaders inspire us to be better than we have been in the past and to follow their vision for the future.

Research that attempts to measure charisma focuses on four general characteristics of charismatic leaders. 

  1. They have a high degree of self-confidence.  
  2. They are good at expressing themselves and capture the attention of other people.
  3. They are open to exploring new ideas and taking new (and sometimes risky) approaches to solve problems.
  4. They are creative and establish new visions for how to accomplish goals

A paper in the January, 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Jasmine Vergauwe, Bart Wille, Joeri Hofmans, Robert Kaiser, and Filip De Fruyt explores the relationship between these qualities and leadership effectiveness.

The paper starts by demonstrating that a person’s ratings of the degree to which they have these aspects of charisma are related to the degree to which other people view them as being a charismatic leader.  In one part of this study, individuals were asked to identify leaders they knew.  Those leaders filled out a variety of personality inventories including an inventory of charisma as well as a Big Five inventory (measuring Extraversion, Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism).  People who knew each leader also rated how much of a charismatic leader they thought the person was.

There were two key results of this study.  First, as you might expect, the self-ratings of charisma correlated with other people’s perceptions of whether that person was a charismatic leader.  Actually, this finding is important, because previous research has never been clear on whether charisma is a quality of an individual or whether it is something about the way that individual is perceived by others.  That is, charisma might be totally in the mind of the perceiver rather than some inherent property of the person.  This research, though, suggests that there are characteristics of the individual that are perceived as making them charistmatic.

The second key result was that the dimensions of charisma are largely independent of the Big Five personality dimensions.  There is a reasonable correlation between extraversion and charisma.  Unsurprisingly, charismatic people are good in social situations.  But, there were at best small correlations with the other aspects of the Big Five.

So, how is charisma associated with leadership performance?

The researchers suggest that there may be a complicated relationship.  In particular, each of the dimensions of charisma can have both good and bad qualities.  For example, being open to exploring new ideas is good compared to someone who never wants to consider anything new.  However, someone who is always exploring new ideas runs the risk of never following through on their ideas, because they are always enamored of the next exciting thing.

Thus, it is possible that the most effective leaders are moderately charismatic. They are able to capture people’s attention and get them to share a vision, but they also have enough operational ability to complete the projects they start.

In two subsequent studies, leaders filled out an inventory measuring the degree to which they have behaviors of charismatic leaders.  These leaders also rated their own leadership effectiveness.  In addition, other people who knew these leaders rated the effectiveness of the leaders.  These ratings came both from subordinates of the leader as well as peers.

Interestingly, the leaders themselves think that more charisma is good.  Their ratings of leadership effectiveness increased with their judgments of their own charisma.

In contrast, other people’s judgments of leadership effectiveness showed an inverted-U-shaped relationship with charisma.  People moderate in charisma were judged as more effective leaders than people who were with very low or very high in charisma.  There is such a thing as having too much charisma. 

A final study looked more specifically at types of behaviors leaders engage in.  These behaviors were classified as either strategic (related to developing a good strategy for a group) or operational (related to carrying out that strategy).  It found that the reason why the people seen as the best leaders have a moderate degree of charisma is that they have the best balance of being able to be strategic in their thinking and operational in their work.  People low in charisma are operational, but not strategic.  People high in charisma are strategic, but not operational.

Finally, leaders themselves discount the importance of being operational in being an effective leader.  Leaders assume that more charisma is better.  Their judgments of what makes a good leader track strategic thinking rather than operational planning.  As a result, leaders overestimate the value that charisma has for being an effective leader.

References

Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Hofmans, J., Kaiser, R.B., & De Fruyt, F. (2018). The double-edged sword of leader charisma: Understanding the curvilinear relationship between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(1), 110-130.