Too much or too little "charisma" can be linked to poor leadership outcomes, according to a new study
Leaders with too little charisma may lack long-term vision; those with too much may have trouble executing plans
Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs and Antonin Scalia have all been described as charismatic. But experts wonder whether all that charisma has a downside.
“If I could speak like Barack Obama, if I could light up a room like he does,” former presidential candidate Jeb Bush said in 2015. “Charisma’s not a bad thing. It’s a pretty effective tool to be able to take a message to a broader audience, and he is gifted beyond belief in that regard.”
Charisma can rouse crowds, kindle followers’ trust and boost employee performance, according to researchers. But a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
“People need a leader who they can look up to and who they trust,” said study author Jasmine Vergauwe, a doctoral student at Ghent University in Belgium. “It’s only recently that researchers have begun to investigate the too-much-of-a-good-thing effect.”
Charisma is a “fuzzy construct,” Vergauwe and her colleagues said, so they set out to measure it using a well-known personality test: the Hogan Development Survey.
The survey includes four sections, known as the “charismatic cluster,” that measure how bold, mischievous, colorful and imaginative a leader is. Each section comprises 14 true-false statements and takes minutes to complete.
Hogan Assessments, the company that developed the survey and provided some data to the researchers, asked business leaders and their co-workers to respond to statements like “I get bored quickly,” “I have a reputation as a risk taker” and “people think I am something of a character.”
The company then calculated scores for charisma using a proprietary scale for the four personality traits.
When taken to extremes, the authors wrote, self-confidence in one leader may be hubris and narcissism in the next. “Mischievous” leaders may take risks and be persuasive, but they may also manipulate and exploit their followers. Creativity can be either innovative or unrealistic.
“I’m not sure that they’re measuring what I’d call ‘charisma,’ but they’re definitely measuring something,” said Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and president of the Association for Research in Personality. McAdams was not involved in the study.
What Vergauwe describes as “charisma,” McAdams described as “dominance leadership.” Charisma may come in other forms, he said.
McAdams, who has written about the psychology of US presidents, said the “charismatic cluster” is common among “socially dominant leaders … who have a strong emotional relationship with their followers, to the point that their followers see them as saviors.”
He added that these types of political leaders can be effective to a point, especially when there’s an outside threat.
“When you’re facing mortal threat, the primal dominance leader is going to make you feel secure,” McAdams said.
Other experts have argued that charisma is not necessary to be a top business executive.
Vergauwe said personality testing can be used to train leaders to compensate for their shortcomings. Comparing the responses of business leaders with their colleagues, her team found that leaders with too much charisma may pay less attention to the practical details of how to execute their plans, but those with too little charisma may not convey a long-term vision.
“I think we can all imagine some leaders who had … big ideas and didn’t get it done,” she said.
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But McAdams thinks these leaders are the least likely to want to learn in the first place. He said world leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump use “impulsive,” forceful and independent leadership styles and may be less open to the input of others.
He said he found it hard to imagine a political leader “who has these characteristics … who is at the same time high in adjustment. It’s almost like a contradiction.”