Beware: The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership
By Ray Williams
April 28, 2019
Throughout history, we have been inspired, influenced and impacted greatly by leaders who are charismatic. At times we almost deify them. Yet, there is a distinct dark side to charismatic leaders, one that at various times in our history has brought chaos and destruction. Recently, scholars and observers have begun to look more closely at this dark side.
There is in some individuals the remarkable ability to affect other persons, communities, and even populations, in such a way that dramatic transformations are effected. This ability is sometimes consciously exercised and much less commonly, it is totally unwittingly practiced. The results vary, between those brought about by design and those brought about totally by happenstance. Then again, the design might be altruistic or sinister. That ability has become known as charisma. And the impact can be positive or disastrous. It is the dark side of charismatic leadership that has not been given sufficient credence.
What is Charisma?
Charisma can be defined as “a special power that some people have naturally that makes them able to influence other people and attract their attention and admiration,” and “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others,” and “a divinely conferred power or talent.” Charismais from the Greek χάρισμα (khárisma), which means “favor freely given” or “gift of grace.”
Theologians and social scientists have expanded and modified the original Greek meaning into the two distinct senses above. For ease of reference, we will call the first sense personality charisma and the second divinely conferred charisma.
The meaning of charisma has been reduced to a mixture of charm and status. John Potts, who has extensively analyzed the term’s history, sums up meanings beneath this diffused common usage: “a mysterious, elusive quality…the ‘X-factor’ …The enigmatic character of charisma also suggests a connection – at least to some degree – to the earliest manifestations of charisma as a spiritual gift.”
A Historical Context
The centuries from 800 BCE to 300BCE saw the burgeoning of philosophical and religious concepts that was unprecedented. Charismatic figures were often associated with these developments, for example, Jeremiah, Jewish prophet and scholar, Gotama Buddha, the founder of a whole new religion, Mahavira, the chief preceptor of what became a rival religion in close proximity to Buddha’s, Lao Tzu, a central figure in Taoism, and Confucius, an independent thinker also in China. In the West. Socrates, wielded his influence at the close of this period and left an indelible imprint on the way Western man thinks and behaves to this day, emphasizing the spirit of personal inquiry. All these thinker leaders were effective principally because of their charisma. Personal scars may have propelled them to this achievement on the background of a milieu of uncertain values and a thirst for better reasoned norms.
Charismatic religious leadership is often infused with political strategy. Moses, apart from getting Divine Law to his people, united quarrelsome slave bands to a promised land and made them a fighting nation. Jesus not only taught the principles of faith,hope and charity; he lethally challenged the imperial status of Rome by declaring God to be the only true monarch and the eternal kingdom of Heaven to reside in the hearts of the faithful. Mohammad did not only start a new religion; as an astute military commander he conquered the Arabic lands and united barbaric tribes and gave at Mecca a center to their nomadic life, preparing the way for Islamic expansion.
Many of these leaders have very ordinary lives and circumstances seem to conspire to bring them to the fore: George Washington, a quiet planter was transformed into a continental commander. Mohandas Gandhi was ‘a mediocre, unimpressive, floundering Barrister-at-law’ in sharply contrast with the Mahatma, leader of millions. Public cause ‘tapped his enormous reserves of intuition, will power, energy and self-confidence’. Giants like Garibaldi, Lincoln and Lenin, had pronounced ordinariness about them that would not have predicted their future greatness. Churchill achieved a charismatic bond with his people quite late in life, when circumstances brought about his ‘finest hour’.
The most grossly underestimated of modern charismatics, arguably, was Adolf Hitler. Like a prominent minister in our country, now back on the track of fortune, Hitler was once dismissed as a ridiculous clown. The main attribute that drove him to awe inspiring greatness was his fanatical racist conviction. Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, notes that, “the mass appeal of the charismatic leader has only an indifferent relation to that leader’s actual personality and character attributes. Perceptions are more important than reality.”
Great political charismatic leaders have an abiding conviction that destiny has chosen them for a heroic mission. Napoleon often spoke of destiny. Italy’s Garibaldi believed in his destiny to triumph, and this firm belief engendered his fearless fighting and power to inspire people.
Often the mission begins with a crisis; the charismatic leader rises from the ordinary to determinedly fulfill a destined role. Napoleon might have remained an obscure officer with a limited command but for the crisis that brought him to power. His adversary remarked that Napoleon’s presence on the battleground was worth forty thousand men; but what if there had been no war?
In studying charismatic politicians such as Fidel Castro, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, John Kennedy, Ferdinand Marcos, Gamal Abdel Nasser, all present fascinating lives where there was a yearning for public approval.
What is Charismatic Leadership?
Charisma is a tricky thing, says Patricia Sellers, in her article in Fortune magazine: “President John F. Kennedy oozed it—but so did Hitler and Charles Manson. Con artists, charlatans, and megalomaniacs can make it their instrument as effectively as the best CEOs, entertainers, and presidents. Used wisely, it’s a blessing. Indulged, it can be a curse. Charismatic visionaries lead people ahead—and sometimes astray. They can be impetuous, unpredictable, and exasperating to work for, like Turner. Trump. Steve Jobs. Ross Perot. Lee Iacocca.”
Sellers argues “Like pornography, charisma is hard to define. But you know it when you see it. And you don’t see much of it in the FORTUNE 500. As Al Dunlap, the pugnacious renegade who rejuvenated Scott Paper, says, ‘Corporate America, what a bunch of boring guys!’ Look at the men heading the largest U.S. companies: Jack Smith at GM, David Glass at Wal-Mart, Robert Allen at AT&T, Robert Eaton at Chrysler. Eaton, like many charismatically impaired chiefs, has an inspiring lieutenant beneath him: Bob Lutz is Chrysler’s magnetic, hard-driving”
Charismatic leaders are found in various authoritarian states, autocracies, dictatorships, theocracies and from time to time, democracies, says Sellers. To help to maintain their charismatic authority, such regimes will often establish a vast “personality cult.” When the leader of such a state or organization dies or leaves office, and a new charismatic leader does not appear, such a regime is likely to fall or decline shortly thereafter, unless it has become fully routinized, she argues.
What Makes Leaders Charismatic? Some Research Findings
We still do not have a good idea about what makes a leader seem powerful, confident, and charismatic. Here’s what some researchers have said of the characteristics and behaviors of charismatic leaders:
- Charismatic leaders must use some kinds of communication and image-building strategies to seem powerful and confident (House, 1977). Researchers have identified some of these strategies with respect to the content of the speech, its framing, and the delivery mode (Den Hartog & Verburg, 1997; Shamir et al., 1993).
- Charismatic leaders engage followers’ self-concepts (Shamir, Arthur, & House, 1994; Shamir et al., 1993) by using a number of “tricks” (Antonakis, Angerfelt, & Liechti, 2010; Awamleh & Gardner, 1999; Howell & Frost, 1989).
- Charismatic leaders are risk-takers and are unconventional (Conger & Kanungo, 1998; House, 1977).
- They set high goals (House, 1977) and make sacrifices for the greater good (Shamir et al., 1993).
- They know how to communicate in appropriate (e.g., emotionally charged) ways so that they can package their message to be easily understood (Frese, Beimel, & Schoenborn, 2003; Wasielewski, 1985).
- They use positive (Bono & Ilies, 2006) and negative emotions (Wasielewski, 1985) and various nonverbal strategies (Cherulnik, Donley, Wiewel, & Miller, 2001).
- They are good storytellers; they know how to use their voice as well as body gestures (Frese et al., 2003; Towler, 2003).
- They are masters in rhetoric and make use of contrasts, lists, repetition, as well as alliteration and rhetorical questions (Den Hartog & Verburg, 1997; Willner, 1984).
- They also use metaphors extensively. These communication devices simplify the message and render it highly understandable and visible (Charteris-Black, 2005; Emrich, Brower, Feldman, & Garland, 2001; Mio, 1997; Mio, Riggio, Levin, & Reese, 2005).
According to an evolutionary theory proposed by a pair of psychologists, charisma is the ability to convince followers that you can get other members of a wider group to cooperate. These researchers found that exposure to charisma increased generosity: Subjects who saw a ted talk by a charismatic speaker later gave more money to a stranger than did those who saw an uncharismatic one. And thinking about a charismatic person (versus an acquaintance) made people more likely to cooperate with a stranger.
We’re most swayed by charisma when lacking data on a leader’s record. In one study, subjects had to decide whether to keep or boot a CEO after watching a fake newscast describing him as high or low in charisma and his company’s stock price as rising, sinking, or relatively flat. Charisma helped the CEO most when performance was ambiguous. Researchers rated past presidential candidates’ charisma, by combing their speeches for charismatic tactics—storytelling, expressing moral conviction, setting high goals. Only when economic indicators were muddled was charisma strongly correlated with votes received.
A bit of mystery may boost charisma. When a CEO’s success was attributed tointangible factors (“keen insight and vision”) rather than effort (“loyalty and long hours”), he was rated more charismatic. People preferred a hug from a charismatic leader to a hug from a hardworking one; they also preferred his lucky charm, as if his magic might rub off on them.
Charisma isn’t magic, though; it’s influenced by mundane factors like height. Among Dutch managers, taller men were seen as more charismatic by subordinates. And subjects with speedy answers to general-knowledge questions were considered quick-witted, funny, and charismatic by friends. In fact, mental speed was a stronger contributor to charisma than IQ or personality.
While height and mental quickness elude many of us, charisma can be taught. When researchers trained middle managers and MBA students for 30 to 90 hours in 12 “charismatic leadership tactics,” such as using metaphors and gestures, they found that charisma improved.
Research on the Positive Aspects of Charismatic Leadership
Conventional wisdom suggests that the most charismatic leaders are also the best leaders. Charismatic leaders have, for instance, the ability to inspire others toward higher levels of performance and to instill deep levels of commitment, trust, and satisfaction. As a result, they are generally perceived by their subordinates to be more effective, compared with less charismatic leaders.
The theory of transformational leadership, widely viewed as the most credible kind of leadership, has been blended with the positive aspects of charismatic leadership. Transformational and charismatic leadership has been the focus of a great many research inquiries (Yukl, 1999); these approaches have helped shift the leadership paradigm to what it is today (Antonakis, Cianciolo, & Sternberg, 2004; Conger, 1999; Hunt, 1999; Lowe & Gardner, 2000). This research stream dominates the leadership landscape—whether deservingly or not—at least in terms of published papers in the premier academic journal focused on leadership, The Leadership Quarterly, both in the last decade (Lowe & Gardner, 2000) and in the current one (W. L. Gardner, Lowe, Moss, Mahoney, & Cogliser, 2010).
According to Max Weber, followers of charismatic leaders perceive their leaders to be gifted and to possess unique abilities that allow them to perform feats that are beyond the capacity of average individuals. Moreover, the key to success for charismatic leaders lies solely in the extent to which they are perceived to be gifted by their followers. If followers fail to recognize their leaders as having charisma, then the charismatic influence mechanism breaks down, and leaders can no longer exert their influence over followers. Weber says the holder of charisma seizes the task that is adequate for him and demands obedience and a following by virtue of his mission. His success determines whether he finds them.
His charismatic claim breaks down if his mission is not recognized by those to whom he feels he has been sent. If they recognize him, he is their master—so long as he knows how to maintain recognition through ‘proving’ himself. But he does not derive his ‘right’ from their will, in the manner of an election. Rather, the reverse holds: it is the duty of those to whom he addresses his mission to recognize him as their charismatically qualified leader.
In addition to describing the attributional nature of charisma, Weber suggested that charismatic leaders tend to arise during times of economic, social, political, and/or other forms of unrest. He argued that it is during such crisis situations that charismatic leaders get the opportunity to utilize their “divine gifts” and are able to lead effectively and successfully. These “divine gifts” often take the form of an emotional appeal to inspire and rouse followers, a radical vision to instill hope for the future, or bold steps that a leader may take to attenuate the negative effects of a crisis at hand. Once followers get a small taste of success, they tend to become more inclined to believe in the leaders’ powers to perform extraordinary feats resulting in a further consolidation of the leader’s influence over followers.
According to Robert House, the key to successful relationships between charismatic leaders and their followers is the ability of leaders to inspire and emotionally arouse their followers. Successful charismatics are able to energize their followers by championing an appealing and potentially radical vision for the future. Followers of charismatic leaders often end up developing strong emotional bonds with their leaders, which serve as a foundation for their willingness to be compliant and committed to their leaders’ agendas. The perception of leader charisma leads to a belief that charismatic leaders are blessed with extraordinary strengths that are likely to lead to a realization of the radical vision articulated by leaders. Moreover, given that charismatic leadership is more likely to emerge in times of acute crises and/or contexts characterized by distress, the presence of a leader with extraordinary abilities serves as a source of reassurance and hope, which further strengthens the influence that charismatic leaders tend to exert on their followers.
House’s theory of charismatic leadership was further developed by Boas Shamir and colleagues to include a more elaborate articulation of the behaviors of charismatic leaders, the mediating processes through which charismatic leaders motivate and influence followers, and the outcomes that follow as a result of leaders’ influence. According to this self-concept-based theory of charismatic leadership, “charismatic leaders achieve transformational effects through implicating the self-concept of followers”. Followers of charismatic leaders often identify personally with their leaders. Due to the perception that charismatic leaders possess “extraordinary” qualities, followers oftentimes make an attempt to be like the leader whom they admire and emulate the leader psychologically as well as behaviorally.
Psychologically, they may subscribe to the same value systems, morals, and ideals that their leader is known to embody; and behaviorally, followers may end up enacting the same leadership behaviors that they observe their leader performing. Like social identification, personal identification also moves followers to go above and beyond their call of duty.
Shamir and colleagues described internalization as one more mechanism that is responsible for the influence that charismatic leaders exert on their followers. Internalization “refers to the incorporation of values within the self as guiding principles”. When charismatic leaders use ideological explanations to communicate their vision to followers, they portray their vision as noble, heroic, and having high moral standards.
When followers internalize the values, ideals, and goals inherent in their leaders’ visions, those values, ideals, and goals become part of the followers themselves. They “come to view their work role as inseparably linked to their self-concept and self-worth” and “carry out the role because it is a part of their essential nature and destiny.
Building on the theoretical groundwork established by Weber, House, Shamir, and others, Conger and Kanungo proposed an alternative theory. According to this conception, the phenomenon of leader charisma was described as a function of the processes that followers utilize to ascribe charismatic qualities to their leaders.
According to Conger and Kanungo, the source of leader charisma lies in the attributions that followers make about their leaders. In essence, it reflects the adage, “charisma lies in the eye of the beholder.” The attribution of charismatic qualities to a leader depends on how the leader behaves, the perceptions of the leader’s competence and ability to handle problems and difficult situations, and the characteristics of the context/situation that the leader-followers are embedded in. The right mix of the three ingredients leads to followers attributing charismatic qualities to the leader, which marks the beginning of the influence process of charismatic leaders.
Conger and Kanungo outlined several traits and behaviors of leaders that cause followers to make charismatic attributions. Foremost among them is the portrayal of confidence by the leader. Leaders are seen as more charismatic when they exhibit a sense of self-efficacy in their beliefs and actions. When followers see their leaders taking decisive steps toward the attainment of collective goals, and acting confidently to overcome persistent problems/hurdles, they are more likely to believe that their leaders have the “divine gift.”
Followers also tend to attribute charisma to leaders who espouse radical and ideological visions that are distinct from the status quo. The fortitude and courage that is displayed in communicating a vision that serves to challenge the status quo leads to perceptions of leader boldness and decisiveness, both seductive attributes in their own right. When followers realize and understand the positive outcomes associated with the radical vision, they are compelled to make charismatic attributions; for without the leader’s foresight, the path to success would not have been possible. One caveat, however, is that if the espoused vision is perceived to be too radical or too much of a deviation from what seems possible, the leader runs the risk of being perceived as incompetent or outlandish.
Kets de Vries and Lindholm looked at charisma from a psychoanalytic perspective. They sought to explain the reasons behind followers’ personal identification with their leaders and the subsequent effect it has on followers.
According to this perspective, followers can derive a sense of empowerment and positive energy by merging their identity with that of the charismatic leader whom they admire and cherish. Through the process of transference (i.e., unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another), followers often seek to compensate for fractured self-identities, inchoate value systems and morals, and unfulfilled needs/desires by identifying with a charismatic leader who is seen as a walking example of what they seem to want or lack.
They derive a sense of vicarious fulfillment of their needs and desires by associating with their leader, and the leader often becomes a source of continual motivation and inspiration. This view of how followers come to identify and “worship” charismatic leaders sheds light on the influence processes associated with cult leadership and leaders with compromised moral standards who nevertheless are able to command strong support and devotion from their followers.
Around this same time, Riggio and colleagues (Friedman, Riggio, & Casella, 1988; Riggio, 1987) argued that the charismatic qualities that cause a leader to be labeled “charismatic” were highly developed interpersonal and social skills, particularly skills in emotional and nonverbal communication. Emphasis was placed on the emotional contagion processes between charismatic leaders and followers, a topic of research that has continued up to the present time (Bono & Ilies, 2006; Johnson, 2009).
Research on the Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership
Charismatic leadership, thus, is not without its own set of pitfalls, and efforts to further understand this “dark side of charisma” should continue if we are to acquire a better understanding of the overall process of leadership, both “positive” and productive, and “negative” and (potentially) destructive.
Several organizational researchers and leadership scholars (e.g., Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Conger, 1989; Conger & Kanungo, 1998; Hogan, Raskin, & Fazzini, 1990; House & Howell, 1992; Mumford, Gessner, Connelly, O’Connor, & Clifton, 1993) suggested the existence of a negative aspect to the influence of charisma and charismatic leadership. Referring to it as “the dark side of charisma,” it was proposed that because followers are in awe of their “gifted” leaders, they might be less likely to speak up against the ideas and the propositions of their leader, and refrain from offering criticism regarding certain actions or practices.
The “awe” might result in a perception that their leader is infallible and can potentially create a context that is divorced from objective reality. Given that charismatic leaders often challenge the status quo and partake in risky decisions, a less-than-optimal strategy to see their radical vision to fruition may result in serious failures and/or catastrophic and irrecoverable losses; and this does not augur well for any leadership situation. Moreover, such failures can potentially result in forces of opposition that may work toward removing the charismatic leader from his/her leadership position.
House and Howell (1992) offered a distinction between two different kinds of charismatic leaders, viz., personalized charismatic leaders and socialized charismatic leaders. Personalized charismatic leaders were described as self-aggrandizing, non-egalitarian, and exploitative leaders whose primary goal is to act in the interest of their own selves. Socialized charismatic leaders, on the other hand, were described as collectively oriented, egalitarian, and non-exploitative and whose primary goal is to act in the interest of others.
Furthermore, personality traits such as need for power, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, locus of control, etc., were the moderating factors that contributed to the distinction between personalized and socialized charismatic leaders.
Researcher Gary Yuki listed some of the negative consequences of charismatic leaders:
- Excessive confidence and optimism blind the leader to real dangers. For instance, as a charismatic leader, Steve Jobs never saw himself being forced out of the company he founded. But that’s exactly what happened on September 16, 1985 when he left Apple.
- Dependence on the leader inhibits development of competent successors. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, during the period surrounding Steve Jobs’ health scare (which started in mid-2004 and lasted until his successful liver transplant in 2009), Apple stocks dropped. “One reason for the market’s anxiety — Apple shares shed more than 56% in 2008 — is that the company has been silent about its succession plan” (Hiltzik, 2009).
- Failure to develop a successor creates an eventual leadership crisis. “No American CEO is more intimately identified with his company’s success. Jobs is deeply involved in every facet of Apple development and design, and he’s justly admired for his instinct for the human-factor engineering of Apple products. What remains to be seen is whether a post-Jobs Apple will retain the corporate traits that made the company successful with its iconic leader at the helm (Hiltzik, 2009).” Ultimately, some leaders are so irreplaceable that no amount of succession planning will ensure a seamless power transition.“In some sense, with the charismatic person, it’s difficult to prepare a successor, because they are bigger than life,” says John Larrere, general manager at the management consultant Hay Group (Ante & McGregor, 2009).
- Denial of problems and failures reduces organizational learning. One of the biggest drawbacks for charismatic leaders is their failure to sometimes learn. Perhaps, they too fall prey to their own charms and charisma. This lesson can be illustrated with Apple’s handling of the iPhone 4’s infamous antenna issue (which, when gripped a certain way near the antenna, would often drop calls). Apple never admitted any mistakes on its part and instead said that other phones (by competing carriers) also dropped calls when gripped a certain way near the antenna. Rather than redesigning or offering a permanent solution,
Apple decided to offer free cases which would cover the sensitive area to lessen the dropped calls. Consumer Reports, an independent, non-profit organization that tests products, refused to recommend the iPhone 4 contending that “putting the onus on any owners of a product to obtain a remedy to a design flaw is not acceptable to us. We therefore continue not to recommend the iPhone 4, and to call on Apple to provide a permanent fix for the phone’s reception issues.” Interestingly, in 2009 an Apple senior antenna engineer told Steve Jobs the iPhone 4’s external antenna could cause reception problems. Even though Apple engineers knew there could be problems with the iPhone 4’s antenna design, their concerns were dismissed because Jobs liked the design. In addition, a Wall Street Journalarticle stated, “For at least two years, multiple iPhone carriers lodged complaints with the company that its phone doesn’t work well in making calls and doesn’t hold a wireless signal for a voice call as well as other devices.”
Dan Ciampa, writing in the Harvard Business Review,describes 5 phases that a charismatic leader can go through from a positive impact to a negative one:
- The first phase is “characterized by the subtle sense on the part of followers that the leader does not want to be questioned. Followers may begin to quietly complain that the leader is becoming hubristic and acts like they believe they’re the smartest person in the room.”
- The second phase “flows logically from the first: sensing the leader’s diminished appetite for being questioned or challenged, followers begin to self-censor, asking fewer questions and no longer playing devil’s advocate. One person reported: “The last time I [pushed back], he came back with a bunch of reasons why I was wrong, and I felt stupid. I’m not going there again.” Instead of fostering healthy dissent, the charismatic leader begins to be surrounded by ‘yes’ people.”
- The third phase emerges as “charismatic leaders begin to hear only praise and admiration, they enter a negative cycle in which compliments and agreement cause them to become overconfident. Leaders in this stage create their own sense of reality and become resistant to evidence that they may be incorrect. While the first and second phases mostly involve recognition by followers, the third stage involves a distinct shift in behavior by the leaders.”
- The fourth phases begins“If nothing is done to stop this cycle. Since the leader’s views and actions are the only ones that matter, followers reduce their willingness to be proactive. They wait for directions and become passive. Decision making slows down. Efforts at strengthening teamwork stop, and meetings change from a time of joint decisions and buy-in to meetings where the leader announces what everyone else should do. Leaders in this situation complain: ‘If I want something done right, I need to do it myself.’ Because followers begin to grow disillusioned, this stage ends with rising employee turnover.”
- The fifth phase is “characterized by people continuing to follow and ostensibly do only what is necessary but with a deep diminishment in enthusiasm and spirit. They still hear and comply with what the leader wants, but the passion is gone because they don’t feel that they are a part of it anymore. Eventually, they stop listening and become cynical. Creativity and productivity decline. What was once a shared, common vision is now just the leader’s vision. The leader feels unsupported and followers feel estranged.”
Stanford University Business Professor, Robert Sutton argues: “unethical charismatic leaders will focus on their own personal goals and build their message based on themselves (even though it seems like they care about the masses of people). They will discourage and censor divergent opinions and will expect that communication should be one-way, or autocratic (top-down) communication. They will strike back like bullies when they hear criticism (using the message that they ‘must defend themselves against attacks’). Their need for admiration and self-absorption can be so intense that it can lead them to believe that they are infallible. Instead of painting an optimistic vision for the future, they will prey on people’s fears.”
Professor Krume Nikoloski has examined the issue of the dark side of charismatic leadership in an article in the Journal of Process Management-New Technologies. He contends “Personalized charismatic leaders are typically authoritarian and narcissistic. Their goals reflect their own interests, while the needs of the organization and its members are manipulated in order to achieve the leader’s interests.”
Stephen Fogarty in his research on the dark side of charismatic leaders argues they can also exhibit dysfunction aspects of narcissism, which is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance (King, 2007). Narcissistic leaders are principally motivated by their own egocentric needs which, by definition, supersede the needs and interests of the organization and the members that they lead. Egocentric needs (sometimes taken to the point of egomania) include a grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success and power, excessive need for admiration and entitlement, lack of empathy, and envy.
These tendencies include a craving for power and consistent attempts to secure more of it regardless of potential peril to themselves and the organization they lead.
Narcissistic, personalized charismatic leaders can demonstrate a myopic focus on their personal priorities, including willingness to exploit others and engage in behaviors of denial and entitlement (Humphreys, et al., 2010). They can be self-absorbed, attention seeking, and ignorant of the views and welfare of others (Conger & Kanungo, 1998).
They often claim special knowledge or privilege and demand unquestioning obedience (O’Connor, et al., 1995). Their sense of personal entitlement can lead to self-serving abuses of power and autocratic leadership styles (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006). Their grandiose dreams of power and success can cause them to ignore the external environment and to avoid testing their judgment against external benchmarks. Consequently, their grand visions often defy successful implementation (Kets de Vries & Miller, 1985).
The personalized need for power, negative life themes, and narcissistic tendencies of personalized charismatic leaders can contribute to a view of the world where personal safety is achieved through the domination and depersonalization of others. In the absence of self- regulatory mechanisms such as guilt, moral standards, and impulse control, destructive behaviors can result.
A leader’s lack of genuine concern for the needs and welfare of other people can result in the use of their persuasive skills to manipulate and exploit followers. They can have difficulty maintaining cooperative relationships with followers, peers, and superiors. Therefore, followers can be induced to be open to manipulation and deception as the leader pursues his or her self-interest. Followers’ sense of awe in the leader and desire for acceptance by the leader can inhibit criticism and the offering of good suggestions.
While charismatic leaders are generally good at rescue operations, they are often poor at achieving long-term success and management. Compounding this is the fact that it is unlikely that a charismatic leader will modify their leadership style or cooperate in the appointment of a successor. Charismatic leaders often have a difficult time developing successors. They enjoy the center stage too much to share it. To find a replacement who is a peer may be too threatening for leaders who tend to be so narcissistic.
The scandals at organizations such as Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, the Wall Street collapse and countless others have been accredited largely to unethical behavior on the part of organizational formal leaders-that is, their senior executives (Tourigny, Dougan, Washbush, & Clements, 2003; Cohan, 2002). In the age of such corporate scandals, it is important that we understand not only the positive effects of corporate leaders, but also how these leaders might use their charismatic influence to perpetuate corrupt practices.
Several of the charismatic leader traits reviewed above can contribute to “opportunity” for corruption. That is, because of their extreme confidence and excellent communication and impression management skills, charismatic leaders have special abilities to effect corruption within an organization. The charismatic leader’s confidence and “lack of internal conflict” (Kets de Vries, 1993; Nahavandi, 2000) could also contribute to leader arrogance and a skewed moral code (absence of conscience). If these leaders never experience self-doubt, they might not experience a distinct moral sense of right and wrong. Hayward and Hambrick (1997), found that leaders with this “hubris,” or “exaggerated pride or self-confidence” could have significant negative impact on organizational outcomes.
Elena Shesternina, writing an article titled “The End of a Charismatic Era,” in The World Economic Journal,contends “with government officials slowly being replaced by technocrats, it would appear that Europe’s era of charisma and charm is a thing of the past,” citing the examples of bureaucrats gaining power in France and Italy. Management guru Jim Collins, writing in his personal blog, argues “the charismatic-leader model has to die.” He contends a charismatic leader “is not an asset; it’s a liability companies have to recover from.” A company’s long-term health requires a leader who can infuse the company with its own sense of purpose instead of his or hers, Collins argues.
Management expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writing in the Harvard Business Review, regarding self-defeating behaviors that ruin companies and careers, argues many leaders fail because of greed and selfishness; a lack of emotional self-control; and a lack of integrity and ethics. These behaviors and characteristics are certainly found more commonly in charismatic and extraverted leaders than in introverted leaders. “Our findings suggest that organizations may want to consider selecting applicants with mid-range levels of charisma into leadership roles, instead of extremely charismatic leaders,” said Jasmine Vergauwe, at Ghent University and lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In two other studies, the researchers compared the charisma scores of nearly 600 business leaders with their effectiveness as reported by peers, subordinates and superiors. In both studies, they found that as charisma increased, so did perceived effectiveness, but only up to a point. At a certain level, as charisma scores continued to increase, perceived effectiveness started to decline.
“Leaders with both low and high charismatic personalities were perceived as being less effective than leaders with moderate levels of charisma, and this was true according to all three rater groups,” said co-author Filip De Fruyt, PhD, also of Ghent University.
Further analysis of the data suggests that the point at which the relationship between charisma and effectiveness turns negative can be moderated by an individual’s level of adjustment, or ability to cope with stressful events. The researchers also discovered that low-charisma leaders were seen as less effective because they were not sufficiently strategic, while high-charisma leaders were seen as less effective because they were weak on operational behavior.
An operational leader is someone who guides the team to get things done in the near term by managing the tactical details of execution, focusing resources, and managing with process discipline. Strategic leadership, on the other hand, involves effectively communicating a vision for an organization and persuading others to share that vision. Because they appeared to exhibit both of these behaviors in adequate amounts, moderately charismatic leaders were rated most effective, Vergauwe theorized.
The findings were partially surprising, said Vergauwe, because the researchers had expected that interpersonal characteristics associated with charisma might also play a role, but they found no such association.
“While conventional wisdom suggests that highly charismatic leaders might fail for interpersonal reasons like arrogance and self-centeredness, our findings suggest that business-related behaviors, more than interpersonal behavior, drive leader effectiveness ratings,” she said.
This research may have important practical implications for the selection, training and development of future leaders, according to Vergauwe. For one thing, organizations may want to consider selecting applicants with mid-range levels of charisma for leadership roles, instead of extremely charismatic ones.
Charismatic leaders’ ability to excite followers to follow their mission, and their impression management skills in interacting with stakeholders, could also lead to increased opportunity for corruption. These special abilities of charismatic leaders could allow them to lie with greater ease, potentially creating “façades” that could deceive those who might be averse to illegal or questionable organizational activities. Façades are false exterior images that are different from true internal practices. For example, a charismatic leader might present an external façade to stakeholders detailing greater organizational profits than what actually exists. Obviously, impression management skills could be a powerful tool for a leader to hide any illegal or corrupt behaviors within the organization.
Furthermore, followers of “dark” or “villain” charismatic leaders sometimes engage in behavior that they ordinarily that would never consider. For example, followers of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Adolph Hitler perpetrated atrocious acts because of their unquestioning loyalty to their leader. This automatic compliance of followers exacerbates a leader’s power over them, as well as minimizes the likelihood of any dissent voiced against increasingly immoral or illegal behavior. Further, a charismatic leader who is exalted by followers may actually convince them that any such questionable behavior is not wrong, essentially altering the ethical norms of their followers to be dependent upon the guidance of this seemingly illustrious leader.
Followers of charismatic leaders also have an extreme desire for change, which can be exploited by a “villain”. Because followers crave change so badly, they will be less likely to attend to any information that may be false or unattainable (Nahavandi, 2000). Therefore, followers will not attend to any contradictory information about their exalted leader, and will be very unlikely see their behaviors as corrupt. Charismatic leaders can take advantage of their followers’ need for change to motivate them towards any goal that is framed or “sold” around specific elements that followers desire, even if in reality, they participate in corrupt behavior in order to meet these goals.
On the eve of its bankruptcy in 2001, Enron declared its intention to become the world’s leading company. At that stage, by some measures of turnover, it was the seventh largest company in the US (Gordon, 2002) and was at one point valued at US$70 billion by the stock exchange (Steiger, 2002). Thus, the scale of its ambition had some credibility. But its demise may instead ensure that its fate is to become the most analyzed case study of failure in business history. Myriad analyses have now been published, outlining its trading practices (Steiger, 2002), exploring the implications for the communication aspects of business ethics (May & Zorn, 2003) and ethics more generally (Peppas, 2003), its likely impact on business education.
While it has been noted that the Enron scandal highlights “a recurring communication dysfunction within the organizational structure of the corporation itself” (Cohan, 2002), relatively little attention has been focused on what the culture of the organization demonstrates about the dark side of charismatic leadership. Thus, although The Economist suggested in June 2000 that Enron could be viewed as “some sort of evangelical cult” (Sherman, 2002), the idea has not been systematically explored in the academic literature.
Charismatic leadership is “risky” for an organization. It is difficult to predict the result when too much power is placed in the hands of an individual leader. Charismatic leadership brings radical change into the strategy and culture of an organization. This degree of change is appropriate when an organization is in need of significant transformation or is facing a crisis. However, the centralization of power and the implementation of risky strategies are unlikely to continue to be appropriate when the organization achieves a more normal operating mode.
We may be reaching watershed in our attraction to charismatic leaders, at least the ones where style and charm without substance no longer have an appeal. Tomas Charmoro-Premuzic, writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, contends “In the era of multimedia politics, leadership is commonly downgraded to just another form of entertainment and charisma is indispensable for keeping the audience engaged.” He goes on to describe the dark side of charismatic leadership, claiming it: Dilutes judgment; is addictive; disguises psychopaths; and fosters collective narcissism. Samuel Bacharach, a professor of management at Cornell University’s Institute of Workplace Studies, argues charisma is not necessarily the litmus test of leadership. Rather he says, “leaders are defined by their actions and ability to execute.”
In my work with CEOs and other senior leaders in organizations over the last 35 years, I’ve found invariably it’s the over-the-top charismatic extroverted leader who gets into trouble either personally or gets the organization into difficulty. So while there is a natural and historical attraction to the charismatic leaders who can inspire others with an emotional vision and connect with charm, the long-term impact in terms of relationships and execution becomes questionable.
It can be argued that the current form of free market capitalism, the prevalence of individual and corporate greed, and the prevalence of CEOs and political leaders who have psychopathic and/or narcissistic characteristics, creates a fertile field for the attraction and success of charismatic leaders. While dark-side charismatic leaders appear in dictatorial and autocratic regimes (and sometimes businesses), their increasing prevalence in democracies should give us cause to be concerned.
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