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  • Writer's pictureMark Olivito

Charisma: A Dangerous Word in Leadership

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

Charisma is a celebrated characteristic in society. If you have Charisma, you have the makings of a leader, someone with the ability to influence (so they say…) Type “Charismatic Leader” into Google images and you’ll see many familiar faces.

  • I think of Steve Jobs, especially after coming back to Apple and saving them from extinction

  • JFK- For his boldness of declaring we will land a man on the moon

  • Howard Shultz – A guy that grew up in the projects in NYC, than built one of the great brands in our country’s history

  • Martin Luther King Jr. – The courage, impact on society, and sheer guts. Any “top figure list” in our country’s history has to include MLK.

So now back to CHARISMA in the context of Leadership.

Charisma is a flat out dangerous word in business, particularly when it comes to selecting talent for key roles.

“We need a leader like her, she has charisma!”

Maybe you don’t hear it directly, but it’s often in the back of the decision maker’s minds as they evaluate and select talent. It’s a trait that is highly influential, and at times, borderline irrelevant.

Why? If Leadership were a product, than charisma is the Packaging.

For a consumer products marketer, I can attest to the critical nature of packaging. It can make a break a product’s chances to generate sales and stand out from the competition. Bad packaging will hurt sales and vice versa. Of course, the product itself certainly needs to deliver against expectations for long term success.

Leadership is different. The flair/slick packaging of charisma is no doubt a surface level benefit. Don’t misunderstand me, if you had a choice, you would rather have charisma than not have it.

The danger comes when organizations EQUATE charisma with effective leadership, making them one a

nd the same.

There’s an axiom that is taught in all Stats 101 classes:

Correlation does not imply CAUSATION

Two things that move in the same direction do not mean they cause each other.

An easy way to illustrate the danger of equating charisma with effective leadership?

Think of the term: “Empty Suit.” No substance, all style.

Many have experienced the flashy, dare I say “charismatic” leaders but couldn’t seem to get things done. They are great at creating hot air, poor at generating results and earning respect of the people they are there to lead. While they fill a room with hot air, they are actually sucking the oxygen out of an organization.

Effective leadership is not style; it is about a deep CONNECTION with people, and the influence of people to generate real business results.

Results are what matter and they are generated with people.

Charisma can certainly be an enabler. It can also be the slick packaging behind a product with little substance.

Jim Collins got it right in his classic Good to Great, describing Level 5 Leadership.

He defined a Level 5 leader as an executive in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will. Not the larger than life figures you think of when you think of great leaders.

Get beyond the packaging when looking for effective leaders.

Find Leaders willing to Get Dirt Under the Nails.

They are the ones that will earn respect of people, and results always follow.

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