Too Much Charisma Can Make Leaders Look Less Effective
*This article was authored by Jasmine Vergauwe, Bart Wille, Joeri Hofmans, Robert B. Kaiser, and Filip De Fruyt, and it was originally published by Harvard Business Review on September 26, 2017.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the most charismatic leaders are also the best leaders. Charismatic leaders have, for instance, the ability to inspire others toward higher levels of performance and to instill deep levels of commitment, trust, and satisfaction. As a result, they are generally perceived by their subordinates to be more effective, compared with less charismatic leaders.
But our research shows that while having at least a moderate level of charisma is important, having too much may hinder a leader’s effectiveness. We conducted three studies, involving 800 business leaders globally and around 7,500 of their superiors, peers, and subordinates. Leaders occupied different managerial levels, ranging from supervisors to general managers. Our paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
First, it’s important to understand what charisma is. Traditional models of charismatic leadership state that charisma is not a personality trait, but simply exists in the eye of the beholder. In other words, charisma is attributed to someone, as opposed to being grounded in one’s personality.
However, the observation that people tend to agree in their perceptions of others’ charisma levels suggests that it is not only a matter of attribution, and that this agreement might result from a personality-based foundation underlying these perceptions. So the first goal of our research was to establish a measure of charismatic personality.
We gave leaders the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), a personality inventory specifically designed for work applications, and looked at how they scored on four personality tendencies: bold, colorful, mischievous, and imaginative. More-charismatic leaders score high on these traits, which is reflected in their high self-confidence, dramatic flair, readiness to test the limits, and expansive visionary thinking.
Next, we conducted a study to confirm this cluster of traits as a valid measure of charismatic personality. Using a sample of 204 business leaders, we showed that charismatic personality related to subordinates’ perceptions of charismatic leadership. So leaders with a highly charismatic personality, as measured with HDS charisma, were also perceived to be highly charismatic by their subordinates. Using an archival data set from 1998 on a sample of 156 people, we further showed that HDS charisma levels could be predicted by people’s charismatic behaviors (for example, being energetic, assertive, and generating enthusiasm).
Our second goal was to investigate the relationship between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness. In a second study, 306 leaders (65% of them men) provided HDS self-ratings of their charismatic personality, while their coworkers provided ratings of their overall effectiveness using a 10-point rating scale, where 5 is adequate and 10 is outstanding. Taken together, 4,345 of their coworkers participated in this study: 666 superiors; 1,659 peers; and 2,020 subordinates. An average of 14 people rated each leader in terms of overall effectiveness.
Consistent with our expectations, we found that as charisma increased, so did perceived effectiveness — but only up to a certain point. As charisma scores continued to increase beyond the 60th percentile, which is just above the average score relative to the general population of working adults, perceived effectiveness started to decline. This trend was consistent across the three observer groups (subordinates, peers, and supervisors).
We also asked the leaders to evaluate their own effectiveness. As shown below, the more charismatic the leaders were, the higher they rated their own effectiveness. This discrepancy between self-perceptions and observer ratings is in line with other research demonstrating that leaders with high self-esteem typically overrate their performance on a variety of criteria.
In a third study, we tested whether the effects of charismatic personality on effectiveness could be explained by looking at specific leader behaviors. To test this, we asked 287 business leaders (81% men) to rate their charismatic personality, and an average of 11 coworkers — including supervisors, peers, and subordinates — to rate each leader in terms of overall effectiveness. Additionally, coworkers now also rated leaders on two pairs of opposing leader-behavior dimensions: the extent to which they were forceful and enabling(tapping into the interpersonal behavior dimensions, or how they led), and the extent to which they were strategic and operational (representing the organizational dimensions, or what they led).
Although we did not find significant relationships between charisma and the interpersonal behavior dimensions, we found that highly charismatic leaders were perceived to engage in more strategic behavior and less operational behavior. But how can this explain lower effectiveness ratings for the most charismatic?
One explanation is that the costs associated with the desired trait (charisma) eventually come to outweigh its benefits. For highly charismatic leaders, we expected that the costs associated with a lack of operational behavior would come to outweigh the benefits delivered by strategic behavior when a certain level of charisma is exceeded. And that’s exactly what we found: Highly charismatic leaders may be strategically ambitious, but this comes at the expense of getting day-to-day work activities executed in a proper manner, which can hurt perceived effectiveness. They failed, for example, in managing the day-to-day operations needed to implement their big strategic vision and in taking a methodical approach to getting things done in the near term. Further analysis showed that for leaders with lower levels of charisma, the opposite was true: They were found to be less effective because they lacked strategic behavior. For example, they did not spend enough time on long-term planning, and failed in taking a big-picture perspective, questioning the status quo, and encouraging innovation.
In terms of practical implications, our findings suggest that leaders should be aware of the potential drawbacks of being highly charismatic. Although it’s difficult to draw a precise line between “just enough” and “too much” charisma, these are a few traits to look out for that can influence one’s effectiveness. Self-confidence, for instance, may turn into overconfidence and narcissism in highly charismatic leaders, while risk tolerance and persuasiveness may start to translate into manipulative behavior. Further, the enthusiastic and entertaining nature of charisma may turn into attention-seeking behaviors that distract the organization from its mission, and extreme creativity may make highly charismatic leaders think and act in fanciful, eccentric ways.
For those whose charisma may be above optimal, coaching and development programs aimed at managing potential operational weaknesses, enhancing self-awareness, and improving self-regulation can be useful. Highly charismatic leaders would also benefit from receiving feedback from their coworkers on their effectiveness. That way, any gap between their perception and the perceptions of others will become clear. In contrast, coaching programs for leaders low on charisma might focus more on boosting their strategic behavior.
In sum, we found support for the idea that a leader can be too charismatic. Our findings suggest that highly charismatic leaders are perceived to be less effective, not for interpersonal reasons like self-centeredness but for business-related reasons that specifically relate to a lack of operational leader behavior.
We do want to point out that we didn’t include situational factors in our study, which could influence the strength and shape of the relationship between leader charisma and effectiveness. Under certain conditions, such as in low-stress situations, this relationship may be strictly linear (“the more charisma the better”). However, we believe that high-stress and high-pressure situations are rather typical for a “normal” leadership context, enhancing the likelihood of finding a too-much-of-a-good-thing effect. Additional studies will be important to further investigate the specific conditions under which charisma is desirable or not.
Jasmine Vergauwe is a PhD candidate at the Department of Developmental, Personality, and Social Psychology, Ghent University. Her research interests include general and maladaptive personality traits, personality assessment, and leadership, with particular emphasis on traits as predictors of managerial performance and derailment.
Bart Wille is Assistant Professor at the Department of Training and Education Sciences, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on professional development, strategic human resource development, career management and unfolding, and person-environment fit.
Joeri Hofmans is Associate Professor at the Research Group of Work and Organizational Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel. His research interests include personality, emotions, and motivation at work, with particular emphasis on temporal dynamics.
Robert B. Kaiser is the President of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, based in Greensboro, NC. His latest book is Fear Your Strengths: What You are Best at Could be Your Biggest Problem. You can find him online at kaiserleadership.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filip De Fruyt is Senior Full Professor at the Department of Developmental, Personality, and Social Psychology, Ghent University. His research spans adaptive and maladaptive traits, their structure and development, cross-cultural manifestations of personality, and applied personality psychology.