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Science Says Too Much Charisma is Bad for Leadership

By 3p Contributor

By Jack Anzarouth

Bad news for all those incredibly charismatic leaders out there: Science says your charisma might be making you a poor leader (or at least seen as a poor leader).

This comes as a fairly shocking revelation, as charisma is usually one of the top personality traits people think of when they picture a good leader, especially in business. When getting a new enterprise off the ground or trying to get your team excited about a project that may not be that exciting, you have to able to shmooze. Whether you’re courting venture capitalists, appealing to the general public on a crowdfunding site or ingratiating yourself to your rich uncle for a loan that may or may not ever get paid back, charisma helps.

But, according to a scientific study recently published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” researchers found that people who are perceived as being highly charismatic leaders are also perceived as ineffective leaders.

This counterintuitive finding stems from the fact that getting people to believe in the vision you have for your company is a lot different than running your company on a day-to-day basis and that’s where really charismatic people tend to stumble.

Researchers from Kaiser Leadership Solutions, Ghent University, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the University of Antwerp conducted a study of 800 business leaders from around the globe from various management levels within their respective companies. They spoke with the business leaders themselves, but also their peers, subordinates and superiors within their respective companies.

Not surprisingly, the level of business leaders’ perceived effectiveness rose along with the level of the leaders’ perceived charisma. However, that was only to a certain point (the 60th percentile, to be precise). When a leader’s perceived charisma went beyond that point, their perceived effectiveness actually started to go down.

That point is just above an average working adult’s perceived charisma, so people who are perceived to have slightly above average charisma are still seen as effective leaders, while people who are perceived to have significantly higher than average charisma are perceived to be less effective leaders.

As you may expect, leaders who described themselves as highly charismatic, also believed they were highly effective leaders, meaning they were oblivious to their own ineffectiveness.

But why?

The answer to this question can be found in the difference between strategic thinking and operational thinking.

While highly charismatic people tend to be long-term strategic thinkers, people of average or lower charisma tend to focus more on the operational side of things. The study’s authors say that charismatic leaders are “strategically ambitious,” at the expense of executing the mundane work activities that must be done everyday to keep a business running, which negatively affects how effective they are perceived to be.

Lest you think being too charismatic is the only problem the researchers found, they also say that leaders who are perceived to have low levels of charisma are also seen as being less effective because while they may pay close attention to the day-to-day operations, they tend to not focus enough on long-term planning, they don’t have a big picture perspective of their operations, they don’t question the status quo enough and they fail to encourage innovation.

So, to be perceived as an effective leader, businesspeople must find a “Goldilocks” zone where their charisma is just right.

The researchers identified four elements in highly charismatic people that, if they get out of hand, can be detrimental to their leadership.

  • Self-Confidence - Too much self-confidence, the researchers say, can easily turn into overconfidence and, if left unchecked, can morph into narcissism.

  • Persuasiveness - While being persuasive in business is generally a good thing, in highly charismatic people, it can sometimes lead to manipulative behavior.

  • Enthusiasm - Being too enthusiastic all the time can lead to being perceived as an attention seeker who distracts people’s focus from the business.

  • Creativity - An overabundance of creativity in highly charismatic people can turn into eccentricity, which will cause people to question your leadership ability.

Toning down charisma

As odd as it may sound, some leaders may have to make efforts to be perceived as less charismatic. Not an easy task, especially considering that highly charismatic people tend to also think they’re highly effective leaders.

If people regularly tell you that you’re incredibly charismatic, you may consider enrolling in a business coaching program that can show you how to spot and fix operational weaknesses in your business.

In addition to that, researchers also suggest highly charismatic leaders enroll in personal development programs that can teach them how to be more self-aware and improve self-regulation.

The most important thing leaders with an abundance of charisma can do is gather feedback about their effectiveness from the people they work with, whether that be peers, subordinates or superiors. This will help shore up any gaps in how they perceive their own effectiveness versus how others perceive their effectiveness.

And, for those less than charismatic leaders, they too can seek out personal and business development programs that will teach them to be more strategic in their long-term thinking and foster more innovation in their businesses.

It’s hard to believe that too much charisma can ever be a bad thing, but leaders who are always “on” and always dreaming far into the future might be failing with the nuts-and-bolts of the operation in the present. It’s worth getting some feedback on.

Jack Anzarouth is President of Digital Ink Marketing in New York

image credit: iStock

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