The dark side of charisma

Most people think charisma is as vital to leadership as it is to rock stars or TV presenters and, unfortunately, they are right. In the era of multimedia politics, leadership is commonly downgraded to just another form of entertainment and charisma is indispensable for keeping the audience engaged.


However, the short-term benefits of charisma are often neutralized by its long-term consequences. There are big reasons to resist charisma:

Charisma dilutes judgment. There are only three ways to influence others: force, reason, or charm. Whereas force and reason are rational, (even when we are “forced” to do something, we obey for a good reason) charm is not. Charm is based on emotional manipulation and, as such, it has the ability to trump any rational assessment and bias our views. Charismatic leaders influence by charm rather than reason, and when they run out of charm, they tend to revert to force (think Jim Jones, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, or your favorite brutal dictator).

Charisma is addictive. Leaders capable of charming their followers become addicted to their love. After the initial honeymoon effect is over, they continue to crave high approval ratings, which distracts them from their actual goals. Followers, on the other hand, become addicted to the leader’s charisma, reinforcing displays of populism and perceiving unpopular decisions as deal-breakers. The result is a reciprocal dependence that encourages both parts to distort reality in order to prolong their “high.” Typically, charismatic leaders will remain deluded even after their followers have woken up. Tony Blair will forever think that the invasion of Iraq was a moral triumph, and Saddam Hussein (who relied on charisma for years) was absolutely convinced that he had served his country with dignity and integrity. But ask most people in Britain or Iraq what they think, and you will hear a very different story.

Charisma disguises psychopaths. Although you don’t have to be a psychopath to be charismatic, many psychopaths are charming, and the main reason for this is that their charm hides their antisocial tendencies, so they manage to get away with it. Egocentricity, deceit, manipulativeness, and selfishness are key career advancers in both politics and management, and many leaders rise to the top, motivated by their own problems with authority. Although being in charge is a good antidote to having a boss, if you cannot be managed you can probably not manage others either-this is why Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump spent very little time working for others, but too much time managing others.

Charisma fosters collective narcissism. If you think Barack Obama is charismatic try asking the average Republican. People are charmed by others only when they share their core values and principles. In line, charisma facilitates ideological self-enhancement: our adoration for someone who expresses our own beliefs (usually better than we are capable of doing ourselves) is a socially acceptable way to love and flatter, not only ourselves, but also our “tribe” (e.g., Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, etc.). In other words, we would not find someone charismatic if their vision didn’t align with ours, so the only transformation charismatic leaders can attain is to unite their followers by turning each of them into a more radical version of themselves: the only way of being fully committed to a cause is to be fully opposed to another.

Despite these dangers, the dark side of charm is commonly overlooked. Politics is in bad need of a charisma detox, especially in the Western world. Here are three simple recommendations for upgrading to a more rational, and sterilized leadership model, even if it makes poor TV, and attracts very few YouTube hits (think Angela Merkel rather than Silvio Berlusconi):

Select leaders using scientifically validated assessment tools, instead of relying on “chemistry” or intuition. For example, narcissists tend to perform well on interviews, and confidence displays are often mistaken as competence. Conversely, robust psychometric tests will identify character flaws in aspiring leaders, and provide a reliable estimate of their likelihood of derailing—unlike humans, tests are immune to charm.

Limit politicians’ media exposure and airtime; it is distracting and makes charismatic candidates look more competent than they actually are. Of course, I’m not proposing that we limit freedom of speech or regulate press coverage, but content could be curated to provide a more factual and educational account of elections. There is a fundamental difference between a Hollywood actor and a leader, but the modern image of a politician conceals it. Furthermore, this image fuels popular stereotypes about leaders in general, which explains why The Campaign (with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis) is almost too realistic to be funny.

Look for hidden talent-which means avoiding the charisma trap. There is a universal management paradox whereby the people most likely to climb the organizational ladder do so because of (rather than in spite of) character traits that impair their performance as leaders. Although it has been over 20 years since this paradox was first noted, we are still reluctant to look for leadership potential beyond the people who self-nominate for the role-mostly by bullying, and stepping on others. This is one of the principal reasons for the low representation of female leaders in senior political or corporate roles; it also explains why the few women who managed to break through the glass ceiling exhibit more aggressive, ruthless, and pathologically ambitious personalities than their male counterparts (think Marissa Mayer or Margaret Thatcher).

In brief, charisma distracts and destructs. Technology and science have enabled us to systematize many serendipitous practices (shopping, marketing, relationships, hiring, etc.) A more mature and evolved version of politics will require a charisma detox-leadership is not a game.

Author: Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London