Charisma: Not a Recipe for Better Leadership

humility word in metal type

*This is a guest blog post written by Nicholas Emler, Ph.D., a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Surrey.

Leadership was for too long grievously neglected by mainstream psychology, so it is good to see the topic more regularly getting serious scholarly attention; there is now a substantial body of informative research, in marked contrast to the situation 25 years ago. However, not all the scholarly attention has been beneficial. My concern on this occasion relates to some recent work (Antonakis, 2018) on the link between leadership and charisma.

Antonakis makes useful points in this article, noting that charisma has suffered from fuzziness of definition.  And his interpretation of charisma as persuasive signalling is an interesting route to rigour in research on charisma. However, the idea that successful leaders use rhetorical and presentational devices to enhance their persuasive impact on audiences is not new (see Atkinson, 1984) and many of the insights of this earlier work have clearly been absorbed by professional politicians. Witness the now ubiquitous use of projection screens to allow speakers apparently to maintain eye contact with audiences while actually reading from a script.

Antonakis correctly observes that a leader judged charismatic by one audience can be seen as a dangerous demagogue by another but this does beg a very large question. Bad leadership can do immense damage, far beyond the effects of even the most energetic criminal individual. Promoting charisma as a desirable (and trainable) quality – the line taken by Antonakis –  does nothing to address this. Indeed, quite to the contrary. Archie Brown, in his excellent The Myth of the Strong Leader, observes that charisma “is often dangerous and frequently overrated”. And the evidence that he is correct – on both points – is beginning to stack up. Boards of publicly traded companies have for some years supposed that they should appoint CEOs with charisma. The people they appoint following this dictum may deliver short-term profits but in the longer run they create chaos and ruin.

Having charisma and being persuasive can get you elected or promoted but does nothing to guarantee that you have either good judgment or the moral qualities needed successfully to meet the challenges of leadership. This relates to an important distinction, now recognised in the leadership literature, but neglected in Antonakis’s article, between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. Qualities of the person associated with one are barely related to qualities associated with the other. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, among the qualities that research is beginning to identify as predictive of effectiveness is humility (Owens, Johnson, & Mitchell, 2013; Vera, & Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004). Humility goes with recognising one does not have all the answers – necessarily true of anyone providing leadership to a complex enterprise – and being willing to seek and listen to advice. Hitler, Musssolini, and the reverend Jim Jones may all have had charisma but none was burdened with humility (and the same looks to be true of some current world leaders).

Persuasive signalling matters for the reception and impact of one’s message but surely what should matter far more is the content of the message.


Antonakis, J. (2018) Moving psychology forward – with charisma.  The Psychologist, March, 44-47.

Atkinson, M. (1984). Our masters’ voices: The language and body language of politics.  London: Routledge.

Brown, A. (2014).  The myth of the strong leader: Political leadership in the modern age.  London: The Bodley Head.

Owens, B. P., Johnson, M. D., & Mitchell, T.R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24, 1517-1538.

Vera, D., & Rodriguez-Lopez, A. (2004). Humility as a source of competitive advantage. Organizational Dynamics, 33(4), 393-408.