Jack Welch. Lee Iacocca. Ronald Reagan. Steve Jobs. Sam Walton.
These prominent leaders from the 1980s embodied a leadership style held up at the time as highly desirable and effective: charismatic leadership.
Leadership trends wax and wane, and charismatic leadership has more recently taken a back seat to less hierarchical and paternalistic leadership styles, such as participative leadership and facilitative leadership. But as long as charismatic leaders such as Elon Musk and Donald Trump continue to hold and seek power, the benefits and pitfalls of charismatic leadership deserve consideration.
What Is Charismatic Leadership?
In his 1947 book, Theory of Social and Economic Organization, German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as a “gift” that leads a person to be “treated as a leader” based on their perceived “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” that are “not accessible to the ordinary person.”
In the 1970s, management scholar Robert House developed his charismatic leadership theory, which describes leaders who “by force of their personal abilities are capable of having profound and extraordinary effects on followers.” These effects, he wrote, include “commanding loyalty and devotion” and “inspiring followers to accept and execute the will of the leader without hesitation or question or regard to one’s self-interest.” Charismatic leaders, House wrote, are often enlisted to “break with the established order” and to accomplish “major social change.”
Early writings on charismatic leadership, House noted, described the charismatic leader as prompting an emotional response in followers that inspires them to “enthusiastically give unquestioned obedience, loyalty, commitment and devotion to the leader and to the cause that the leader represents.” Through their self-confidence, charismatic leaders were thought to motivate followers to pursue organizational goals more confidently.
The Downside of Charismatic Leadership
By 1996, charismatic leadership had become the “predominant paradigm in organizational leadership theory and research,” wrote University of Alabama researcher J. Bryan Fuller and his coauthors in a research review of the topic for Psychological Reports. But although everyone seems to know charisma when they see it, “the ambiguity of the phenomenon and the difficulty of its measure have hindered researchers from firmly comprehending it,” they wrote.
As a result, pitfalls of charismatic leadership may have been overlooked. Anecdotal evidence from business, government, and beyond suggest charismatic leadership can trigger both the best and worst of humankind. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, drew on his charisma to encourage his followers to push for needed social change, while Adolf Hitler used his charisma to motivate his followers to scapegoat others and commit evil acts.
Because charisma is rooted in emotional manipulation, it can lead followers to abandon rational thought and accept ideas uncritically, writes organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article. In addition, he writes, charismatic leaders tend to become “addicted” to the unquestioning approval of their followers, which distorts their judgment and distracts them from their goals. Followers, in turn, “become addicted to the leader’s charisma.” The result is a “reciprocal dependence” that leads both parties to “distort reality,” according to Chamorro-Premuzic.
Is Charismatic Leadership Effective?
In 2017, Jasmine Vergauwe of Gent University and her colleagues tried to quantify the overall effectiveness of charismatic leadership by conducting three studies on a total of 800 business leaders and about 7,500 of their superiors, peers, and subordinates. In one study, they gave leaders a personality assessment that measured four indicators of charisma (namely, how bold, colorful, mischievous, and imaginative they were). Those who scored as more charismatic were also perceived as highly charismatic by their subordinates, the researchers found.
In a second study, leaders’ charisma was assessed, and their coworkers rated their overall effectiveness on a 10-point scale. “As charisma increased, so did perceived effectiveness—but only up to a certain point,” write Vergauwe and her team in Harvard Business Review. When leaders scored above the 60th percentile on charisma (just above average for the general population of working adults), their effectiveness began to decline in the eyes of their subordinates, peers, and supervisors. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the more charismatic leaders were, the higher they rated their own effectiveness.)
In a third study, the researchers found that highly charismatic leaders were strategically ambitious but had difficulty realizing their vision due to difficulties managing day-to-day operations. The opposite was true for those lower in charisma: They may have been competent at execution but didn’t spend enough time on long-term planning and promoting innovation.
The Bottom Line on Charismatic Leadership
Charisma in a leader can be linked to innovation and breakthroughs. Yet highly charismatic leaders are prone to overconfidence; eccentricity; and attention-seeking, manipulative behavior, Vergauwe and colleagues conclude. Coaching, training, and feedback from coworkers might help these leaders more accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses, they suggest.
Chamorro-Premuzic, meanwhile, advises organizations to avoid the “charisma trap” by choosing leaders based on unbiased assessment tools and by considering “hidden talent”—those who may not self-nominate themselves for leadership roles.
What pros and/or cons of charismatic leadership have you observed on the job?