Why Charisma is Not Required For Leadership

Have you ever thought “If I was more charismatic, I would be a better leader?”

Many people think that to be an effective leader, they must have charisma. Or, on the flipside, they may see someone that has charisma and assume that because of the charisma, they must be a good leader.

It’s also one reason some believe that leaders are born and not made – they think they must have certain innate, unlearnable traits that make a leader – charisma being one of them.

However, the truth is, none of the above is true.

For one, charisma is a skill that anyone can learn.

More than that, charisma isn’t a determining factor of exceptional leadership. Just because someone has charisma doesn’t mean they will be an effective leader.

There are other skills that one must have to be effective.

In fact, you can be a great leader without charisma. Yes, charisma can help you motivate and inspire, but so can a powerful mission and creating the right culture.

Jim Collins, in his research that he did for his book Good to Great, found that of the great companies that he studied, most of the leaders of the great companies were not charismatic.

Charisma can actually be a liability.

Why is that?

The Dangers of charismatic leadership

First, let’s be clear that charisma in itself isn’t bad. You can be effective or ineffective with or without it. It’s all in how you use it.

Let’s look at some dangers that can come with charisma. You will note that some of these dangers and issues can apply to any leader, but sometimes charisma can make the temptation or the issue worse if not careful.

Also note that many of the dangers connect with one another. I did my best to separate them into separate headers, but you’ll notice that many could go together or have cause and effect relationships with one another.

Everything may revolve around the leader

With charismatic leaders, sometimes everything revolves around the leader. It’s about the leader and what the leader does and wants. The leader is the main purpose-provider and motivator.

That can be dangerous for multiple reasons.

First, if something happens to the leader, whether they get sick, they fall out of favor, they die, or they leave, then it leaves a huge gap. People no longer have purpose. They no longer have motivation.

What should happen instead is that everything should resolve around the mission, or the core purpose, not the leader. The leader should be guiding people toward the purpose, not toward themselves.

Jim Collins in one of his articles said, “Almost by definition, an enduring great company has to be built not to depend on an individual leader, because individuals die or retire or move on. What’s more, when a company’s identity can’t be separated from the identity of its leader, it can’t be known for what it stand for. Which means it sacrifices the potency of being guided by its core purpose.”

When this happens, it also means:

Succession is poorly planned (or not planned at all)

Sometimes when leaders leave and the company falls apart without them, they think it’s a sign they were a great leader.

It’s not.

It shows that they didn’t train and prepare their team for success without them.

One of the key jobs of the leader is to prepare for succession, so that when they leave, the company or team can keep moving forward without them.

If everything revolves around a leader and their charisma, and that is what everything is based on, then things will fall apart when they leave.

It can lead to a high ego and overconfidence

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Leaders in general can sometimes be arrogant or think they know better because they are a leader. With charismatic leaders, that temptation can be even more because of how people are following you.

They believe they know better because of who they are. They become overconfident in their abilities and knowledge because of the way people follow them.  

Teresa Amabile said, “But charisma has a dark side: the risks of an ever-expanding ego, delusions of infallibility, and a sense of invincibility. In the worst cases, when charisma is detached from moral values, it foments a worshipful adherence through which evil proliferates unchecked: Think Hitler. Even in milder cases, a leader’s charisma can blind people to serious deficiencies and flaws (think Jeff Skilling of Enron)”.

That can lead to multiple dangers as well.

The focus becomes about status instead of the mission

Instead of focusing on the mission and doing what’s right, when ego and overconfidence grows, the focus easily becomes about one’s status.

People think well of you and follow your every word, and you don’t want that to go away. Instead of the priority being the mission, it can become about you and your image.

People may fear speaking up

Employees sometimes have a hard time speaking up with those in higher positions in general. They may have ideas or see problems, but they may fear speaking up because of the reaction they may get from it.

When the leader is a larger-than-life charismatic leader, that can make it even harder. When everyone is devoted to someone and what they say, to disagree with that or share potential problems can become even more difficult.

It can easily become like The Emperor’s New Clothes where no one ever says anything.

Not only that, sometimes these leaders may not listen or even ask for input because of their ego, position, or because of how everyone often follows what they say. They may discard anything anyone says against what they say, especially if their ego has grown.

The problem with this, of course, is tremendous, as you don’t get ideas you might get otherwise, you don’t see pitfalls that could happen with one’s idea, and the best idea or decision is likely not picked or made because no one spoke up.

Jim Collins said:

Yes, leadership is about vision. But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted. There’s a huge difference between the opportunity to “have your say” and the opportunity to be heard. The good-to-great leaders understood this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.

Fear to admit failure or being wrong

If they start focusing on their status and image as a charismatic leader, it can lead to them not wanting to admit failures.

If they admit failures, then it can hurt the image they have with people.

It can be easier to blame others or to ignore it than acknowledge that they aren’t perfect as the image they try to put up.

They surround themselves with yes-people

Charismatic leaders may begin surrounding themselves with people who agree with them.

They may not want people who disagree or go against them – they want people who will just follow and do what they want.

Because of this, they may focus on keeping people who just say yes and follow orders around them. It leads to groupthink, where the leader say something, and everyone just follows along with no arguments against.

Teams can become dependent on the leader

When the leader is the driving force, when everything revolves around the leader, those around them can become dependent on the leader.

Instead of building critical thinking and decision-making skills in the team, the leader make it happen by the force of their will.

Everything goes through them. People become dependent on the leader for decisions, to solve problems, and for direction.

And, as we mentioned earlier, when the leader leaves, the company is left with people who don’t know how to act on their own effectively.

It leads to groupthink

A lot of these potential dangers add up and lead to group think. The leader says what they want, and everyone goes with it. No one disagrees.

Leaders can become addicted to the approval of their followers

In a 2012 Harvard Business Review article organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic said that charismatic leaders often become “addicted” to the approval of their followers which distorts their judgement, and their followers then become addicted to that leader’s charisma (source).

This, of course, is dangerous.

So what does all of this mean?

Charisma in itself isn’t bad. It can be a useful skill to have. You just need to be wise with it.

If you have the skill of charisma, you may have to work extra hard to overcome some of the dangers and tendencies you and others may have. Be wary and watch for the traps and dangers that can come with charisma.

Even if you don’t consider yourself charismatic, you still need to be aware of these dangers, as they can affect leaders of all kinds.

It should never be about you, your ego, or your status. Let the focus always be about the mission.

Don’t be the center of everything or have everything revolve around you. Hire and build people who are critical thinkers and who can operate without you. Let it revolve around effective systems, not your personality.

As a charismatic leader, people may fear even more speaking up to you or against you. You may have to be extra intentional to get the facts from people and to have them speak up, disagree, and share.

 Build and prepare those around you so that when you do leave, things run well without you.

And above all, don’t rely on charisma for your leadership – focus on the principles of leadership that really matter. Then you can add your charisma on top of it.

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