The Death of the Charismatic Leader: A Misdirected Notion with Terrible Consequences

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified What makes a great leader? That was one of the questions the professor in my third-year Organizational Behaviour class asked. Now, I was pretty darn excited as there were no I/O (Industrial Organizational Psychology) classes in my psychology program, and by this time, I realized I was dig, dig, diggin’ work psychology. (No surprise to you, given where I’ve ended up, right?) Did you know that at that time, to this professor anyway, there was one right answer? The charismatic leader. That was 30 years ago. Let’s take a deeper look now.

What is a charismatic leader?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are a few highlights:

  • image of a man standing with his back to us in front of a group of people surrounding him in a circle to show he's a charismatic leaderGerman sociologist Max Weber wrote a book In the ’40s called Theory of Social and Economic Organization. He defined charisma as a “gift” that leads a person to be “treated as a leader.” (Insert images of the supernatural, superhuman, and extraordinary person, and I right? Leaders, put on your capes!)
  • Fast forward 30 years, and Robert House creates “charismatic leadership theory” (a paper published by the University of Toronto) where he defines leaders, wait for it, “by force of their personal abilities, are capable of having profound and extraordinary effects on followers” including “commanding loyalty and devotion” and “inspiring followers to accept and execute the will of the leader without hesitation or question or regard to one’s self-interest.” Wowzers! Check out all of the power language!
  • Further writings by House emphasized the emotional response that these magical leaders inspire, where followers “enthusiastically give unquestioned obedience, loyalty, commitment and devotion to the leader and to the cause that the leader represents.” Yes! Pour the Kool-Aid! I want some!

You might not have picked up on the sarcasm, but seriously, give me a break, right?

Is charismatic leadership still a relevant concept today?

Thank goodness authors started writing about the concept’s nebulous and ambiguous nature. If you can’t research it, is it really evidence-based? Many other researchers followed suit, challenging the concept. Some proposed, if charisma is truly the pinnacle, shouldn’t we be nervous? After all, there are a few dark places in history where we can see charisma (e.g., Hitler) used for very, very, very significant, manipulative and dangerous purposes. Sure, holdouts might argue, well, what about Martin Luther King Jr.? He didn’t expect unfactual, unwavering, and unequivocal beliefs and didn’t propel his civil rights movement through personality alone. He was compelling, inspiring, motivating, and spurred transformational action; he had substance and used his virtues to serve the greater good. Unfortunately, for my first foray into a work psychology class, I was just hitting the shift a year or two too late for the charismatic leadership concept to have gone out of favour enough for my professor to stop making heart-eye emojis. (And she wrote the textbook, so you know her opinion wasn’t going to change until the next edition was due to the publisher.)

Was the charismatic leadership concept dangerous?

image of an arm in a suit pointing to the edge of a cliff and instructing his workers to jump off of the cliff showing he's not a charismatic leaderWe’ve already covered some ground about dictators who could have been mistaken for charisma versus movement makers who created healthy change. Now, let’s talk about another problem with this movement: gender inequality. There was a common thread in the litany of “case studies” we read about these esteemed charismatic leaders. It probably won’t surprise you that they were cis white people who identify as he/him in every picture in this section of our textbook. They were all in that piece of clothing that cuts off the circulation to your head (you may know them as a “tie”). In other words, the text was mired in unconscious bias from visual to examples that type of leadership is just a little bit more elusive for minority folks in the class. Equity issues aside, I had this weird feeling I could not name at the time. As a student, it’s easy to label discomfort as a misunderstanding; “it’s the learning process.” Maybe if I studied a little harder, researched more, and tried to contrast the difference between this type of leadership and others, I would surely understand how powerful charisma was in leadership! In fact, the more I studied it, the more I realized that I may, in fact, have a few of those qualities, yet when I tried to exercise them in the class, I was given this feedback from my female professor: “let others have a turn to speak.” Wait, what, does charisma get approved by others? I guess I wasn’t doing “charismatic student leader” right. I couldn’t shake it that this was all a bill of goods. She was selling theoretical swampland. Her unintended subtle message was: even if we were square pegs, we had better find a way to get into that round hole if we were to make it as leaders. By the way, if you think I’m being unkind, she literally gave us homework to compare and contrast our shortfalls, I kid you not, to the esteemed leaders in the case studies assigned each week and create a “roadmap to charisma.” I don’t think I did terribly well on the assignment. (Guess who in the class did well.)

Who is an example of a charismatic leader that turned out to be toxic?

Let’s move beyond dictators and think for a second about the leaders who have been held up as the standout leaders on the heels of this leadership movement—the people Fortune magazine wrote about, book publishers flocked to, and case studies spotlighted. I’m going to share one, and you may or may not agree that it was an unhealthy role model for esteemed leadership, but here goes. I call it…

The Jack Welch Era

When I was in the first decade of my career, I was “gifted” many of Jack Welch’s books. I took a leadership development program where we learned about his “cut the bottom 10% of the workforce who weren’t high performers.” As I looked around the room at all the nodding heads, I thought, gosh, do I still not get it? Apparently, if you are not the top one or two in projects, business lines, and people, expect to get cancelled. Talk about the ingredients in a competitive, combative, comparative, and toxic culture! Now, I’ve never run a multi-billion dollar company, but seriously, why slice the environmental, humanitarian, and socially good innovations that didn’t make you the top in the sector but were hugely impactful? What about the people-centred leaders who weren’t keeping their beady little eyes on the productivity and financial metrics closely to make that one or two spot because they were, say, mentoring and developing their people? Yet they were rewarded for their people-first efforts by being gifted time with an outplacement counsellor for “underperformance” as part of their severance package? How many silos, backstabbings, and politics ran rough shot over the culture? If what gets rewarded gets repeated, they rewarded profits over people. Thinking of what it must have been like to work there makes me get the heebie-jeebies. In other words, just like the supermodels of the 90s, the overly inflated CEO superstars were those making bold moves. And a lot of those moves were really bad for a lot of people in their organizations. Bingo. I think I’ve got it now. My intuition told me these folks seemed charismatic on the surface, but what was happening behind the scenes wasn’t the type of behaviour anyone would want to follow. Could charisma be a cover for nasty behaviour? Is it a bunch of cut-throat characteristics masquerading as desirable? After all, charisma has the root of the word in common with characteristics we use to signify charisma rather than look too closely at their behaviours. Or was this simply a lazy scholarship? If we listed a whole bunch of attributes and said, well, that person seems to have it, and their business seems to be doing really well, that must mean that we need leaders like that!

How does toxic culture become normalized?

image of a toxic leader speaking to 4 frustrated employees showing how not to be a charismatic leader Like the “supermodels” of the 90s, there was this ridiculously overinflated economic alliance between the fancier the leader, the more they got paid. The Economic Policy Institute published a report in 2022 by Josh Bivens and Jori Kandra titled this: CEO pay has skyrocketed by 1,460% since 1978. Wowzers again. Now, more than half of my clients are not-for-profits, healthcare, and other people-facing organizations, so if anything, there’s problematic middle management wage compression (sometimes, their most tenured staff with overtime make more than their manager). However, the point is that the most senior leaders in many for-profit organizations in North America make wildly more than the average employee. In addition to other capitalistic and social forces, wayward scholars laid the foundation for inequality to happen by putting those charismatic leaders way way way up on that pedestal. If we have to look wayyyyy up to these magical beings, then surely, we need to pay them as such! I’m grateful for books like Jim Collins’ Good to Great that also came along, sharing important nuances such as companies that are the best off, in the long run, are led by those who don’t just make short-term benefits (that often help their stock profile and short-term profits) and rather the organization performs as well if not better due to their approach to the long-term vitality of the organization. Rather than charisma, these leaders can focus on clarity, consistency, compassion, curiosity, creativity, and many other collaborative words (oh, another C!)

Leadership Theory Hindsight is 20-20

image of Sarah McVanel's Flip Side of Failing bookSo let me dial up my compassion and dial down my disappointment in my former prof. She was doing the best she could. Hindsight is always 20-20. Knowing what she knows now, and at this time in history, I am sure charisma wouldn’t have been the big focus. And it’s really a lesson in not getting too enamoured with any single best “way” of leading. In fact, as we all know, the more agile, curious, inclusive, empowering, engaging and innovative we are, the more people choose to follow from a place of “we” versus “must.” Let’s ditch the idea that anyone – leaders, owners, “top performers” – needs to be put on a pedestal. The problem with a pedestal is it hurts when you fall off. Being human, even among the highest performers run into roadblocks, obstacles, setbacks and experience failure. Course corrections are inevitable. Desirable even! We heard this loud and clear from the people we interviewed in The Flip Side of Failing, and I hear it from my audiences and coaching clients to this day. Being in a community is the way forward. Today’s and tomorrow’s issues cannot be addressed, fixed, or figured out by one or a few people. Gone are the days of “follow the leader” due to title alone, and the great news is, I have clients who don’t want to feel the burden of that responsibility. They earn the trust people have in them.  Every leader I’ve ever worked with has had a unique combination of greatness that evolves constantly. You don’t need to convince anyone of your greatness when you invite everyone’s greatness to the table; we want to follow people who deeply value us. Ironically, we wasted all that time trying to convince people to follow us when, really, the most authentically charismatic among us is actually the most likable, inclusive, and kind. How do you know? If you removed their title, you’d still say, “Yep, I’d go anywhere with them.” Who is that person you’d follow anywhere? Why not text them, write a thank you, or tag them on this post to tell them what you most value in them? I bet they haven’t been recognized in a while. Cheers to you, great leaders who work every day to ensure that others know they are truly greatness magnified. If you would like to sample our buffet of juicy ideas on how to become a better leader, take a nibble on these other blog posts:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percent, if any, is AI-generated.

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