With leader charisma, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing

Team GB Arrive In Olympic VillageBy Alex Fradera

If there’s one quality you absolutely want in a leader, it’s surely charisma. Celebrated leaders are invariably associated with this magic word, and evidence suggests charismatic people inspire more trust, commitment, and results from their followers. But across a number of other supposedly virtuous traits, such as political ability or assertiveness (pdf), researchers are starting to realise that it’s possible to have “too much of a good thing.” Could charisma fall in that category? That’s the suggestion of new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Jasmine Vergauwe of the University of Ghent and her collaborators began by investigating a mainly American sample, employees in an international aerospace company. They focused on around 300 leaders (supervisors to general managers), two-thirds of them male and typically in their late 40s, who rated themselves on a personality measure focused on capturing charismatic leader qualities. They then rated their own effectiveness as leaders, and the more charismatic they rated themselves, the more effective they believed they were. But when other members of the organisation rated the same leaders, a different picture emerged. Each group – peers, subordinates and managers – described the same pattern: both low-charisma and high-charisma leaders were seen as less effective than those in between. Charisma was useful up to a point, but beyond that, it was counterproductive.

If large doses of charisma are toxic, maybe we can understand why by examining the ingredient list. In the earlier surveys, Vergauwe’s team had used a measure of charismatic personality composed of four aspects: boldness, colour, imagination and mischief. Each has obvious leadership benefits but could also create problems: for example, colourful leaders are extraverted and inspirational, but prefer being in the spotlight to toiling away invisibly on lower-key issues. Similarly, imaginative leaders are visionary and creative, but can tend towards the eccentric and concerning themselves only with the big picture. Vergauwe noted that these negative aspects looked like they could interfere with specific types of leadership activity, and in a second study, the team put this to the test.

Nearly three hundred business leaders from 23 different countries, together with thousands of co-workers, went through a similar rating process as in the first study. This time, however, the measures of leadership effectiveness were more fine-grained, including questions about how the leader treats their staff and how competent they are at organisational strategy and tactics. One hypothesis, that highly charismatic leaders would differ in their treatment of others compared with less charismatic leaders, was not borne out; the researchers thought high charisma would be associated with being more forceful and less enabling, but no such differences emerged.

But when it came to where leaders were putting their focus, the data showed a clear effect. Low-charisma leaders were seen by their staff and colleagues as having too little strategic nous, but no problems with their tactical ability (they could handle the detail but struggled with the big picture). High-charisma leaders, meanwhile, were seen as strategically optimal, but tactically weak (strong on the big picture but weak on detail). Meanwhile, moderate-charisma leaders tended to be viewed as fairly optimal for both strategic and tactical aspects of the job. This suggests that the problem for the highly charismatic isn’t that they are doing too much of anything – over-strategising to the point that it becomes a detriment, for instance – but that they are neglecting other aspects of leadership along the way.

In their search for leaders, organisations are desperate to discover a method, based on particular traits, that ensures they will always strike gold. But wherever they mine, seams that initially appear perfect produce mixed yields, sometimes valuable, sometimes not. Organisations that are mindful of that will do just fine; for instance, knowing that specific blind spots may emerge for charismatic people, you can raise their awareness and develop them into well-balanced leaders. But recruiters who assume that any single quality is pure gold, not realising that under a different light there are copper pyrites in there too, … well, then they’re the fools. And no amount of charismatic figures on their list will make it otherwise.

The Double-Edged Sword of Leader Charisma: Understanding the Curvilinear Relationship Between Charismatic Personality and Leader Effectiveness

Image: Tessa Sanderson-White, Boris Johnson (then London Mayor, now British Foreign Secretary), Dame Kelly Holmes and Jayne Torvill share a laugh as Team GB arrive in the Olympic Village on July 24, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest