Beware: The Dark Side of Charismatic Leaders

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Throughout history, we have been inspired, influenced and impacted greatly by charismatic leaders. Many have been idolized and almost deified. Yet, there’s dark side to charismatic leaders. Throughout history they have also brought us destruction and suffering. Recently, scholars and observers have begun to look more closely at this dark side of charismatic leaders.

Charisma has been 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), means “favor freely given” or “gift of grace.”

John Potts, in is book, A History of Charisma, who has extensively analyzed the term’s history, calls charisma: “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.”

The centuries from 800 BCE to 300BCE saw the emergence of charismatic figures such as Jeremiah, the Jewish prophet and scholar, Gautama Buddha, the founder of a whole new religion, Lao Tzu, a central figure in Taoism, and Confucius a renowned Chinese philosopher. In the West. Socrates, the great Greek philosopher not only gave us great wisdom but was the teacher of Alexander the great, a charismatic leader and conqueror.

Charismatic religious leadership has often been infused with politics. Moses not only spoke to God and obtained Divine Law for his people, he united quarrelsome slave bands and led them to a promised land. Jesus not only taught the principles of faith, hope and charity; he challenged the imperial status of Rome. Mohammad not only started a new religion he conquered the Arabic lands and united barbaric tribes and gave at Mecca a center to their nomadic life.

Many of these leaders initially might have led ordinary lives. For example, George Washington, a quiet planter was transformed into a continental commander and symbol of the American Revolution. Mohandas Gandhi was ‘a mediocre, unimpressive, floundering Barrister-at-law’ who defied the British Empire and led India into independence. in sharply contrast with the Mahatma, leader of millions. And then there’s Garibaldi, Lincoln and Lenin, who seemed like ordinary men early in their lives would not have predicted their future greatness.

Then there was Adolf Hitler, who transcended a rather ordinary life to become a charismatic leader. Hitler was once dismissed as a ridiculous clown, as has former U.S. President Donald Trump. The main attribute that drove Hitler to awe inspiring greatness was his fanatical racist conviction. Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, notes in his book, Hitler: A Biography. 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 believe 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 crises create the charismatic leader.

Psychological studies of famous leaders have suggested that charismatic politicians such Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Lenin and John F. Kennedy all desperately wanted the approval of others.

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 Donald Trump. Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk.”

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.”

We often find charismatic leaders in authoritarian states, autocracies, dictatorships, theocracies and from time to time, democracies, says Sellers. She says 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

  • They are risk-takers and are unconventional .
  • They set high goals and make sacrifices for the greater good .
  • They know how to communicate in emotionally charged ways.
  • They have powerful non-verbal communication skills.
  • They are good storytellers .
  • They are masters in rhetoric and make use of contrasts, lists, repetition, as well as alliteration and rhetorical questions .
  • They communicate metaphorically and use simple language.

We’re most swayed by charisma when we don’t have factual information to make a decision. In a study by Philippe Jacquart and John Antonakis, published in the Academy of Management Journal, subjects had to decide whether to keep or fire a hypothetical 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. In this study, it was found that charisma helped the CEO most when performance was uncertain or ambiguous. In the same study, the researchers rated past presidential candidates’ charisma. Only when economic indicators were muddled was charisma strongly correlated with votes received.

Mai J. Young and colleagues in their article in the Journal of Management examined managers’ charisma. They concluded an aura of mystery may boost charisma. They found that when a CEO’s success was attributed to intangible factors rather than effort he was rated more charismatic. The researchers also found that people preferred a hug from a charismatic leader to a hug from a hardworking one; and they also believed a charismatic manager had some magic or luck that could rub off on them.

Melvyn R. W. Hamstra researched whether there was a connection between charisma and physical characteristics. His study published in Personality and Individual Differences, concluded that charisma is influenced by mundane factors like height. Among Dutch managers, he found, taller men were seen as more charismatic by subordinates.

A study by William von Hippel and colleagues published in the journal Psychological Science, found in his study that subjects with speedy answers to general-knowledge questions were considered quick-witted, funny, and charismatic by friends.

Are we born with charisma or can it be taught? The answer is yes and yes. Research has shown that there are genetic influences, but another study by John Antonakis and colleagues published in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, found that while height and mental quickness elude many of us, charisma can be taught. When the 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.

The theory of transformational leadership which is widely accepted by management experts as the most credible kind of leadership, has included positive aspects of charismatic leadership.

According to Max Weber, arguably the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century, followers of charismatic leaders see their leaders as having unique abilities that allow them to achieve things beyond the capacity of average leaders. Weber says the charismatic leader boldly decides what needs to be achieved and demands obedience and a following by virtue of his mission.

Weber suggested that charismatic leaders tend to arise during times of economic, social, and political chaos and crises. He argued that it is during these crises that charismatic leaders get the opportunity to utilize their “divine gifts” and are able to lead effectively and successfully. These “divine gifts” most often appear as emotional appeals to inspire and rouse followers, a radical vision to instill hope for the future, or bold actions to solve the crisis or chaos. If the followers perceive the charismatic leader has been successful, they become more inclined to believe the charismatic leader has special powers and gifts. This result in a further consolidation of the charismatic leader’s influence over followers. It’s interesting to note here, that although former President Donald Trump was widely regarded as a failure as a president, this did not affect the extreme devotion by a signficant percentage of his followers.

According to Robert House, in his article in the Leadership Quarterly, the key to successful charismatic leaders is the ability of leaders to inspire and emotionally arouse their followers. Usually this involves the charismatic leader’s appealing and potentially radical vision for the future.

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries and Charles Lindholm examined charisma in their research 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. They concluded that charismatic leaders’ followers felt empowerment and positive energy by merging their identity with that of the charismatic leader. Through the process of transference (i.e., unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another), followers often seek to compensate for their own self-esteem and weak identities, and unfulfilled needs by identifying with a charismatic leader who provides them with what they feel is missing in themselves.

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.

Despite the popularity of charismatic leaders and charismatic leadership advocates, there is a “dark side of charisma” that needs to be understood and described because it is destructive.

Several organizational researchers and leadership argue 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 they live in an alternate reality.

Researcher Gary Yukl in his book Leadership in Organizations, listed some of the negative consequences of charismatic leaders:

  • Excessive confidence and optimism reveal serious blind spots. For example, Yukl says charismatic leader Steve Jobs was in denial about the decision to fire him from Apple in 1985.
  • Creating a dependency (and co-dependency) on the charismatic inhibits the development of competent successors. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, during the period surrounding Steve Jobs’ health scare 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, ” the Times article said. This in turn created a leadership crisis. 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.
  • Denial of problems and failures.. One of the biggest drawbacks for charismatic leaders is their failure to sometimes learn. This is illustrated with Steve Jobs’ handling of the iPhone 4’s faulty antenna. Steve Jobs steadfastly refused to admit it was a mistake, but rather criticized other phone makers and network carriers for the problem. A Wall Street Journal article 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 reveals that the leader does not want to be questioned by followers and the charismatic leader believes he/she is smarter than everyone else.
  • The second phase shows that “followers begin to self-censor, asking fewer questions and no longer playing devil’s advocate. . . . 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.”
  • The fourth phases begins “If nothing is done to stop this cycle. . . . 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. . . . Because followers begin to grow disillusioned, this stage ends with rising employee turnover.”
  • The fifth phase is “characterized by do only what is necessary but with a deep diminishment in enthusiasm and spirit. . . . Eventually, they stop listening and become cynical.”

Stanford University Business Professor, author of The Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton argues in his blog : “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, in his 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 charismatic leaders are principally motivated by their own egocentric needs which, by definition, supersede the needs and interests of the organization. The charismatic leader’s egocentric needs include a grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success and power, excessive need for admiration and entitlement, and a lack of empathy. A charismatic leader’s lack of genuine concern for the needs and welfare of other people can is illustrated in their use of manipulation and deceit.

Charismatic leaders’ use of manipulation and deceit has been shown to result in unethical behavior and corruption. Because of their overconfidence and their extreme confidence and excellent communication and impression management skills, charismatic leaders have perfect opportunities to engage in corruption. If the charismatic leader is also narcissistic or even a sociopath, an absence of a moral code can exacerbate the problem.

Matthew L. A. Hayward and Donald C. Hambrick published an article in Administrative Science Quarterly, which found that leaders with this “hubris,” or “exaggerated pride or self-confidence” could have significant negative impact on organizational outcomes. They argue “On average, we found losses in acquiring firms’ shareholder wealth following an acquisition, and the greater the CEO hubris and acquisition premiums, the greater the shareholder losses. Thus, CEO hubris has substantial practical consequences, in addition to having potentially great theoretical significance to observers of strategic behavior.”

Elena Shesternina, writing an article titled “The End of a Charismatic Era,” in The World Economic Journal, cites examples of bureaucrats gaining power in France and Italy where corruption blossomed, and that a major contributing factor was the emergence of charismatic and narcissistic leaders.

In the United States, the story of corruption by the senior executives in Enron and WorldCom brought into focus the dark charismatic qualities of their leaders.

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.”

Jasmine Vergauwe and her colleagues published an article in Personality and Social Psychology which compared the charisma scores of nearly 600 business leaders with their effectiveness as reported by peers, subordinates and superiors. In their studies, they found at a certain level, as charismatic behavior continued to increase, the perceived effectiveness of the charismatic leader 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.

Studies have shown that followers of “dark” 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. Further, these kinds of charismatic leaders have been shown able to convince followers that any unethical, immoral or amoral behavior is acceptable, justifiable and not wrong.

In their seminal book, Charismatic Leadership in Organizations, Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo describe it this way: “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.” They cite a clinical study that illustrates when charisma overlaps with narcissism, leaders tend to abuse their power and take advantage of their followers.

Daniel Sankowsky, in his article in The Leadership Quarterly, says “When a leader is both charismatic and narcissistic, he or she is likely to successfully abuse the power of symbolic status-that is, to induce followers to buy into abusive behaviors.”

Michael Maccoby, writing in Harvard Business Review, argues “ Given the large number of narcissists at the helm of corporations today, the challenge facing organizations is to ensure that such leaders do not self-destruct or lead the company to disaster.”

Jerrold M. Post, writing in Political Psychology, contends this about charismatic, narcissistic leaders: “ the charismatic leader is a “mirror-hungry” personality. The sense of grandiose omnipotence of the leader is especially appealing to his needy follower. A hallmark of the destructive charismatic leader is absolutist polarizing rhetoric, drawing his followers together against the outside enemy.”

Closing Thoughts

Charismatic leadership is “risky” for an organization. Partly that’s because organizations place too much power in the hands of charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders often bring radical change into the strategy and culture of an organization. Often these changes are not driven by organizational imperatives but by the charismatic leaders need for self-referencing.

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.

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.

In my new book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders, I describe how narcissistic and sociopathic leaders are often charismatic ones, and show the havoc they create in organizations, along with suggestions on what to do about it.



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others