The ups and downs of charismatic leadership
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Judging by the airport bookstands it seems that charismatic leadership is coming back into fashion, as it tends to do at least once every decade. In this post we will argue that charisma can be a powerful leadership asset, but it needs to be watched carefully lest it turns into something much less desirable.
On the upside, charismatic leaders can be great fun to work with and for. If they have a good enough technical grasp of whatever they are about, they tend to be good leaders and communicators who can engage people with ease, often at an emotional level. This helps them motivate followers towards common goals and can induce superior performance.
The downside is that charisma can easily develop into narcissism because both are on the same psychological spectrum; that of self-esteem. Charismatic leaders at the positive end of the spectrum display a type of healthy self-esteem known as ‘non-contingent’. This basically means that they are happy with their lot and who they are. They don’t feel a need to show off the trappings of wealth or power. They tend to be creative, confident, assertive and emotionally intelligent.
Destructive egotism lies at the negative end of the self-esteem spectrum. People at this end tend to suffer from exaggerated self love, self-centeredness, grandiosity and lack of empathy. They can be exploitative and often fail to acknowledge boundaries. Most people around them hate working with them and especially for them but egotists can certainly get results, at least in the short term.
Our own research based on psychometric profiling of CEOs and other C-suiters shows that most tend to cluster around the middle of the spectrum, which is a good place to be for many executives. Obviously, though, self-esteem is only one personality trait and others should be considered when profiling leadership potential.
Nevertheless, self-esteem and its sibling ‘self-image’ are extremely powerful drivers of behaviour. We’ve seen our fair share of ‘Charisma gone wrong’ in firms we have long term relations with. This has taught us two lessons which we hope you will find useful:
1. Many people tend to move towards the egotist end of the spectrum as they gain power and formal status. Tell-tale signs include increased command & control, not ‘suffering fools gladly’, and my-side bias (dismissing good ideas because they personally didn’t think of them). If such behaviours are demonstrated at CEO level the results can be disasterous bearing in mind the influence top people have on their organisation’s culture. The good news is that, if caught early enough, the journey towards narcissism can often be stopped by an emotionally intelligent mentor; a suitable board member, perhaps. We’ll expand on this in later posts.
2. Talented narcissists can be an asset to short term projects if they have the requisite technical skills and knowledge. We’ve witnessed several successful outcomes where they have parachuted in, done the job, got bored and left – usually to cheers from staff and colleagues, we must add.
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