What Goldilocks Can Teach Us About Charisma

yasin-hosgor-507334-unsplash (1)“This porridge is too hot!”

“This porridge is too cold.”

“Ahhh, this porridge is just right.”


At Hogan, we’ve been talking a lot about Humility lately. We’ve spent much less time talking about its antonym – Charisma. However, colleagues have used the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) to study charisma and recently published their findings in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This post highlights their key findings, relates it to our own thinking about humility, and calls out some practical implications for coaching and leadership development.

In their paper, Jasmine Vergauwe, Bart Wille, Joeri Hofmans, Rob Kaiser, and Filip De Fruyt show that the HDS contains a “Charisma Cluster” of scales. Specifically, the Bold, Mischievous, Colorful, and Imaginative scales together form a measure of charisma that reflects a combination of confidence, risk-taking, social presence, and strong vision.

People with high scores on the Charisma Cluster describe themselves as talkative, inventive, energetic, and original. They also describe themselves as good-looking, persevering, and ingenious. In contrast, observers describe these individuals only as talkative, energetic, and original, not as good looking and persevering.  Thus, individuals with a charismatic personality have inflated views of themselves that are inconsistent with how others see them.

Picture1Second, and most importantly, the researchers examined the relationship between charisma and overall effectiveness in a sample of over 300 business leaders. Once again, self-ratings of overall effectiveness were inconsistent with coworker ratings: HDS charisma scores significantly predicted self-rated effectiveness (r = .29), whereas the charisma scores were uncorrelated with coworker-rated effectiveness. But the story didn’t end there.

There was a significant curvilinear relationship between HDS charisma scores and coworker-rated effectiveness. According to coworkers, a slight elevation on the charisma cluster – neither too little nor too much – predicted the highest levels of rated effectiveness. The Figure tells the story.

Coworkers indicated that those managers with scores slightly above the average in a large sample of working adults (i.e., about the 60th percentile) were seen as the most effective leaders. After that, more charisma predicted decreasing effectiveness. In contrast, the higher the self-ratings for charisma, the higher the self-rating for effectiveness.  But other people are always the best judge of a person’s performance.

At about the 70th percentile on the charismatic cluster, coworkers start to see the dark side of charisma—where confidence become arrogance, risk-taking gets reckless, social presence looks melodramatic, and strong vision becomes ungrounded grandiosity. But these highly charismatic leaders can’t see the downside, and in fact see themselves as extraordinarily effective leaders.Rob Kaiser (a coauthor) refers to this divergence of opinion at the highest levels of charisma as “the gradient of delusion.”

The moral of this story will be familiar to readers of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Leaders with just the right amount of charisma, neither too little nor too much, are the most effective. Some charisma is desirable; without any spark, leaders lack the confidence, charm, vision, and flair needed to inspire others. But when it comes to charisma, there is clearly such a thing as too much of a good thing.

This research has two practical implications. First, we should never rely on self-assessments of effectiveness or workplace performance. Reputation is where the action is and other people own your reputation.

Second, those working in coaching or leadership development need to develop strategies for bringing highly charismatic leaders back to reality. Coworker feedback is obviously one way to help charismatics calibrate their excessively rosy self-appraisals. Charismatic leaders can also benefit from working with a partner who provides a practical foil to their unrealistic self-beliefs. Such people need to be trusted by the larger-than-life charismatic; they need the insight not to be taken in by the charismatic’s charm and they need to be able to steer charismatic leaders back on track—and prevent them from going over the edge.