Concealed Danger of Charisma


Effective leadership is one of the key factors influencing the success of an organisation or group. An effective leader can excel at adapting to changes in the external environment, make the optimum use of available opportunities, anticipate changes to happen, and motivate subordinates to be highly productive.

Leadership is the ability to influence the behaviour of individuals or groups to achieve specific goals. Accordingly, leadership is a capability. It is something that can be taught, as well as something that can be learned. Thus, four important characteristics of leadership can be identified. Leadership is about people. Also, leadership is about power. It is the act of influencing others. Leadership is a process that is seriously connected with specific goals.

As mentioned, leadership is the act of influencing others to change their behaviour. Behaviour is something that someone does or thinks or desires. Power is the capability to influence. To influence others, leaders obtain and retain the power from various sources among which charisma is paramount.

Charisma is a blend of personal communication skills of a person, persuasiveness, and charm to influence others. Charismatic leaders, given their ability to connect with people on a deep extent, are welcomed in organisations, especially those facing crises to move forward in the business. Most professionals think charisma is as vital to leadership strength. However, the short-run advantages of charisma are often neutralised by its long-run unfavourable consequences. Hence, to be effective and experience the progress of success, charisma should essentially blend with expertise appropriately.

Charisma and expertise should go hand in hand

Charisma doesn’t come alone, rather it comes with the expertise developed over a period of time with deep experience. Without expertise, for a leader, charisma is a dangerous source of power. Unlike authority which is ‘position-related’, charisma and expertise are the two ‘person-related’ power sources of a leader. Thus, charisma and expertise should go hand in hand, and have a trade-off between the two power sources. The great Indian leaders, Mahathma Ghandi and Professor Abdul Kalam are good examples for this trade-off through which they were able to rotate a complex society to a significant extent. Otherwise, such a charisma doesn’t get effective in the long-run leading charismatic leaders to be more authoritarian.

More or less, everybody possesses charisma. But it is not automatic. Charisma is something people learned and developed. Like for humans, charisma also has a particular life cycle. Charisma develops within a person as a result of his/her background, physical appearance, communication capabilities, knowledge and expertise, personal traits and behavior or wealth. However, research evidence show that charisma developed based on knowledge and expertise is comparatively sustainable and powerful.

The second stage of the life cycle of charisma is the identification stage. Personal charisma should be properly identified by subordinates at the right time. It is the stage where the personality of the leader starts impressing subordinates. Today, mass-media and social media play a critical role in popularising the charisma of leaders; basically political leaders. But, a manipulated image at this stage will be dangerous which hinders the long-run charisma of the person. Once subordinates start considering and comparing the actual delivery of leadership with the manipulated charisma or image, if there is a negative deviation among the two, they will be frustrated.

In the third stage of the life cycle of charisma, establishment happens. The identified charisma will be established in the context blended with expertise. Without expertise, in this stage, if a leader attempts to be just charming in the context, it will not be successful. Final stage of the life cycle is declining where charisma begins to decline. Before that stage, real charismatic leaders take action to update knowledge and expertise and enhance the charismatic power as a result.

There are basic two ways of influencing others such as; reason and charm. Whereas reason is rational, charm is not. Charm is based on emotional manipulation. Charismatic leaders influence by charm rather than reason and when they run out of charm they tend to divert into force.

Why do charismatic leaders fail? is a critical problem in the corporate segment and seems a never-ending debate in research. According to research evidence, a charismatic leader often retains much of the control believing oneself beyond limits. The resulting effect is lack of developed successors along the leadership pipeline. Under such leaders, the next layer of leaders are not developed adequately. That is why, a genuine identification of charisma is significant but takes time.

Moreover, such leaders could become addicted to charisma and also the organisation can become addicted to the charismatic leader. The recognition, validation, and impressive feedback generated by charisma is a strong mix that can tempt a leader to capture the reaction first and foremost, rather than face challenging situations. It seems that charismatic leaders can charm themselves. Thus, charismatic leadership is considered a personalised approach rather than an institutionalised approach in the corporate world.

Often a charismatic leader highlights than the whole team. It happens basically if the leader relies on the charisma to a greater extent neglecting expertise and authority. In Sri Lanka, many of the first-generation entrepreneurs failed in business transition to the next generation due to this fact. However, authentic leaders understand the influence and authority they have by virtue of their position and personal attributes. They study themselves in the practice of leadership.  They learn to be better leaders over time with experience by focusing not on what makes them compel personally, but on what makes organisations compelling.

How to avoid the afore-mentioned danger? Most importantly in the corporate firmament, look for hidden talent of successors which means avoiding the charisma trap in the future. Charisma is a capability, not an answer.  Thus, when identifying and developing successors as future leaders, essentially talent and future learning potentials must be focused than  personal traits and qualities exhibited. Charismatic leaders are not the most popular personalities in organisations, but the most knowledgeable and respected.

 Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe

[Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya]

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe