duck with ducklings walking across pavement

I googled “Charismatic Leadership Examples” and here is the result:

Martin Luther King, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandel, Winston Churchill.

Some observations:

  • Not all are positive leaders
  • All inspired actions by their followers

Charismatic leadership is defined as a leader who uses communication skills, persuasiveness, and charm to influence others.

On the short list above, there is a mix of very positive and negative results effected by the leaders ability to motivate followers to embrace and execute their vision. So where does the power lie with charismatic leaders? With the leader or with the followers?

Pick your most favorite and least favorite charismatic leaders. How did they make your feel? What impact did their message have on you?

Below is a list of 14 charismatic leaders from different time frames and professions. On a scale of 1-10 score them based on the impact they make on you, positive or negative.

I will go out on a limb and say that most of your scores were near the extremes, closer to 1 or 10 rather than 5. Charismatic leaders inspire and make us want to follow them based on the vision they create. We often have a strong emotional connection about them.

In a crisis we look for charismatic leaders to show us the way. Why? Probably because of how they make us feel.

In the above list how many leaders resonated with you and how many gave you a feeling of discord? Any that you vehemently defended and/or castigated? I am sure we all had both.

The power in charismatic leaders is in the followers. We give them their power; through loyalty, devotedly following, supporting, and identifying with them. To the point of not being objective about their performance.

Our examples so far are all high-profile leaders. What does the science say about charisma in organizations like yours. In a Harvard Business Review Article titled Too Much Charisma Can Make Leaders Look Less Effective the authors confirm, within organizations there is a sort of “Sweet Spot” for charisma in a leader and their effectiveness. Too little does not work. Too much, definitely a problem. On the too much end of the spectrum, research concluded everyone can see the overuse of charisma except the leader.

The leader believes all is fine trusting their charisma to get things done.

One of the primary downfalls of relying on charisma as a long-term strategy is the leader loses touch and credibility with the operational nature of the organization. Too strategic to the point they are ineffective with their operational duties.

Several other observations on charisma are the temporal effects on the rise and fall of charisma. Remember it is the follower who assesses the degree of charisma, not the leader. In short term situations such as interviews, presentations, and networking, individuals with high charisma are seen as effective. The more time you spend the more you get to know and work with individuals, the less positive one feels about them. Familiarity builds contempt.

Conversely, individuals on the low end of the charisma scale often experience a steady climb the more they become comfortable and known in an organization.

As illustrated in the blog post Leadership Impact: Competence vs Confidence where displayed confidence becomes a proxy for competence, we have to guard again misinterpreting charisma as competence. In ourselves and others.

Some conclusions. As leaders we all need a level of charisma to effectively inspire and motivate our teams. However, if overused or relied on long term as the primary leadership tool, it will become a liability. Self awareness, understanding ourselves, and getting the right feedback is critical to know when we are crossing that threshold.

As followers we need to consider the objective criteria attracting us to a leader. Are we being charmed and wooed by the leader or are they actually effective in leading us where we want to go?

A bit of skepticism can go a long way. Skepticism about ourselves as a leader and those leading us.