We are suckers for charisma. When we choose our leaders we often opt for charisma in place of humility. We do so even though humble leaders do the best job.
So explains Margarita Mayo in the Harvard Business Review. Surely, she is correct, but with a single caveat. If we are talking to a democratically elected political leader, charisma might very well seduce the populace. If it does it will provide us with an uncertain, narcissistic, self-involved leader. Think John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The case of our current president remains to be decided.
And yet, if we are thinking of corporate leaders, the Chairmen and CEOs of corporations are not chosen by popular vote. They are chosen by a Board of Directors, people who presumably have more understanding and knowledge of the person’s performance and who have a better knowledge of what leadership entails.
One notes that in a parliamentary government leaders are chosen by party representatives. The prime minister of Great Britain is not elected by the people. In our government, at its inception only a very small number of property-holding males were allowed to vote. And they voted for delegates or electors who chose the president. Nowadays, the American president is not elected democratically, but is selected by the electoral college. In most cases the vote of the electoral college will correspond to the popular vote, but this need not be the case. Of course, the United States Senate is anything but a democratically representative body. Being less beholden to popular will, it is considered the more deliberative legislative body.
Mayo explains clearly why humble leaders do better:
Humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.
Humble leaders induce others to collaborate. They are not in it for the self-aggrandizement but for the good of the company. They promote working together and getting along. They are open to new ideas and do not feel that someone else’s idea will threatened their position. When a leader is humble people are more likely to share information. Corporate leaders are rarely charismatic. And if they are charismatic they tend not to do very well.
When a leader shows good character, other members of the team are inclined to emulate his example. This produces a contagion effect.
Another study showed that a leader’s humility can be contagious: when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behavior. A study of 161 teams found that employees following humble leaders were themselves more likely to admit their mistakes and limitations, share the spotlight by deflecting praise to others, and be open to new ideas, advice, and feedback.
What is charisma? Mayo defines the term well:
The Greek word Kharisma means “divine gift,” and charisma is the quality of extraordinary charm, magnetism, and presence that makes a person capable of inspiring others with enthusiasm and devotion. German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as “of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of it, the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Research evidence on charismatic leadership reveals that charismatic people are more likely to become endorsed as leaders because of their high energy, unconventional behavior, and heroic deeds.
Charismatic leaders are in it for the drama. They look like what most people believe leaders look like. One understands that very few people have direct access to humble leaders. And one also understands that our conception of leadership is based on what we see in the media, in the movies and on television. A charismatic leader looks like the leaders we have seen, not the leaders we have worked with.
Charisma might feel genuine, but in fact, a charismatic leader has merely presented the right image. He is more show than substance.
The absence of humility, Mayo explains, causes staff members not to share information and not to be willing to collaborate. With a narcissistic leader, it’s every-man-for-himself.
Mayo continues that some humble leaders can be charismatic while some charismatic leaders can work for the good of the group. To take an easy example, a Winston Churchill had the charismatic qualities that were required to lead a nation through a war. At the same time, Churchill was never in it for himself. He was called to lead for the great good of his nation. He did not cash in on his prime ministership.
A humble leader praises others for his success and takes responsibility for failure. A charismatic leader brags about his success and blames others for his failures. Some charismatic leaders have groups of flunkies who produce a narrative whereby they have always gotten everything right. These same flunkies always shift the blame to others when things go wrong. Witness the recent efforts of former Obama administration officials to blame Obama’s failure in Syria on congressional Republicans.
Some charismatic leaders, Mayo explains, are in it for the good of the group. Others are in it for themselves:
Although the socialized charismatic leader has the aura of a hero, it is counteracted with low authoritarianism and a genuine interest in the collective welfare. In contrast, the personalized charismatic leader’s perceived heroism is coupled with high authoritarianism and high narcissism. It is when followers are confused and disoriented that they are more likely to form personalized relationships with a charismatic leader. Socialized relationships, on the other hand, are established by followers with a clear set of values who view the charismatic leader as a means to achieve collective action.
Groups turn toward charismatic leaders when they are in crisis. That is, when they believe that they need to be rescued. Effectively they are trapped in a narrative. This happens when they do not have the knowledge to understand what is really going on.
When a nation is in severe crisis, people seek out a fictional superhero to save them. Such would explain the ascent of Barack Obama, a man who never showed anything like an ability to exercise executive leadership. It does not really explain why America allowed itself to be seduced by the charismatic John Kennedy… a leader who, with his administration, produced the crisis that he was supposed to solve.
My own research shows that our psychological states can also bias our perceptions of charismatic leaders. High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma. As a result, crises increase not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also our tendency to perceive charisma in the leaders we already follow.
It’s not about managing a crisis. It's not about the work required to do so. It’s about believing that a crisis can be solved by magic:
Economic and social crises thus become a unique testing ground for charismatic leaders. They create conditions of distress and uncertainty that appear to be ideal for the ascent of charismatic figures. Yet at the same time, they also make us more vulnerable to choosing the wrong leader. Crises and other emotionally laden events increase our propensity to romanticize the grandiose view of narcissistic leaders. The paradox is that we may then choose to support the very leaders who are less likely to bring us success. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to be seduced by superheroes who could come and “rescue” us, but who possibly then plunge us into greater peril.
Obviously, Barack Obama was elected in the midst of a crisis. Did he manage the crisis or did he cover it up, paper it over, without really dealing with the underlying causes. Our love affair with John Kennedy gave us Vietnam and the counterculture. Now, we have suffered through eight years of Barack Obama and we are waiting for the bill to come due.
Last week’s Trump administration attack on Syria was but the first step toward cleaning up the mess that Obama created in the Middle East. And that was certainly not the only mess.