Extensive research and numerous studies examining the benefits of charisma confirm that people with high levels of charisma are happier, healthier, enjoy more success in their chosen careers and possess increased resilience to the challenges and difficulties that life presents. If the advantages of charisma are so appealing, why then do the majority of organisations shy away from developing the charismatic potential of their leadership team?
There are people who subscribe to the theory that charisma can not be taught, you either have it or you don’t. Other people perceive charisma as a form of psychological bondage that poses an inherent risk for their organisation. I remember when our Business Development Director had a meeting with a major High Street Financial Institution. During the presentation he was a little surprised when their HR Director asked: “Do we really want charismatic leaders?” Charisma can trigger a strong negative reaction because of the legacy left by disgraced and selfish charismatic leaders. Remember the public outcry about the former CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred Goodwin? The media publisher, Robert Maxwell? The disgraced jewellery tycoon, Gerald Ratner?
Even when an organisation’s charismatic leader has proved to be an asset to the organisation, what happens to the business after the leader has moved on? How would the public and investors of the Virgin Empire react if Richard Branson cut his connection with the Virgin brand? The former CEO of Sainsbury’s – Justin King used his charisma as well as other attributes to create a tripling of profits during his ten year tenure. Yet on the day he resigned almost £400 million pounds was wiped from Sainsbury’s share value. Little wonder that corporate competency frameworks rarely feature charisma as a desirable leadership competency.
The corporate prejudice against charisma pales into insignificance when looking at the impact of charisma on a nation when used with evil intent. Historical writer and documentary maker Laurence Rees produced a disturbing 3-part series -The Dark Charisma – based on Adolf Hitler, an awkward, dysfunctional man who developed a level of charismatic attraction almost without parallel in history. Hitler shows that charisma is highly dangerous when possessed by a megalomaniac. Adolf Hitler was without question an extraordinarily charismatic presenter. Certainly in terms of his rise to power, his personal charisma was one of the most effective tools that he used to tap into the collective psyche of the German people.
The Harvard Business Review published an interesting view from Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic , international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing. Dr Premuzic argues that, amongst other things, charisma disguises psychopaths, distracts and destructs, and is responsible for ‘downgrading leadership to just another form of entertainment’. Whilst I disagree with much of Dr Premuzic’s article, it is well written, and certainly mirrors the distrust that the business community seems to have about charismatic leaders. This sweeping generalisation that some individuals may use their charismatic presence inappropriately, often prevents corporations from taking charisma seriously. Whilst I concur that charisma can be used for good, or for evil – that distinction need not prevent an individual or their organisation from benefiting from what is a genuine competitive advantage. As with any attribute, there is a mantle of responsibility inherently implied for the charismatic leader.
Today most leaders, acknowledge that a charismatic leader appears to effortlessly attract loyal and supportive ‘followship’. Charismatic leaders attract more publicity and more attention from outside groups as well as exerting a strong (albeit invisible) bond with their organisation’s workforce. Numerous studies and many different credible research sources show that Charismatic leaders, outperform their non-charismatic peers by an average of 60%.