Who wouldn’t want to follow the charismatic leader, someone with a high level of magnetic attraction, who is able to seamlessly influence people and take charge of processes? But there is a darker side to charisma too.
The potency of charisma
Charisma can have a powerful, reverberating impact. You meet a charismatic leader and you are immediately charmed by his energy, articulation and magnetism.
At the workplace, charismatic people are known to be more likely to be hired, less likely to be fired, they tend to earn more money and also have more friends. Charismatic authority is so potent that some leaders are able to claim a followership even posthumously. For example, spiritual leaders that exuded divine magnetism, such as Krishna and Jesus, are still revered centuries later.
Charisma is defined by Max Weber as “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
However, there is also a darker side of charisma. Depending on the motive and agenda of the leader (Burns, 1978), it can prove to be a destructive force at the workplace. Take the case of Sunny, who joined an MNC as a mid-manager.He worked fairly efficiently, managed to impress his boss at first and seemed to be a highly congenial team player. Less than a year later he had been fired!
Sunny was in fact a self-centered Casanova, who was using his charms to make himself so popular amongst multiple female colleagues, that very soon jealousies emerged, followed by serious divisions in a team that had once worked as smooth as clock-work!
Charisma dwarfs emerging leaders
Another downside of charismatic leadership is that the charisma of the individual concerned often stunts the second-rung leadership, preventing it from emerging. Since charismatic leadership is quite personality dependent, it tends to overshadow other upcoming leaders, thus proving to be unsustainable for an organization in the long run. In India this can often be seen in family-owned enterprises: while the patriarch sets up a company and takes it to the height of success, very often the company folds up as soon as the second generation takes over the reins.
The ‘Halo effect’
Furthermore, one needs to be wary that if in case we are impressed by a charismatic person, there is a tendency to be over impressed! As per psychologist Edward Thorndike, if we have positive feelings about someone, then we are more likely to view neutral or even negative traits of that person in a more positive light. This confirmation bias is known metaphorically as the ‘halo effect.’ Interestingly if you are in a favorable mood, you are likely to be more influenced by the ‘halo effect’ first impression of a person as attractive and likeable (Forgas, 2011).
In line with this theory, a ground-breaking 2004 study suggests that tall men had a direct correlation to higher earning (Judge and Cable, 2004). Indeed, the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than the average man.This applies to taller women too. Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book: A Celebration Of Life From On High, said: ‘Research shows that tall people are consistently more successful in the workplace … Not only do they earn more but they’re more likely to be in leadership positions.’
What could be the reason for this? Perhaps the taller person has over the years developed greater self esteem which is more conducive to leadership.Or perhaps our perceptions are biased in that we perceive tall people as being more leader-like with more authority and confidence, especially since they talk to others who are less tall with a downward eye cast.
A fairy-tale ending?
Perhaps it is ingrained in our psyche from our early childhood that ‘attractive’ is equated with ‘good.’ After all we have been brought up on fairytales, in which the ‘good’ like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Prince Charming, are always depicted as attractive.
In conclusion, while we may have a natural inclination to be impressed by the charismatic leader, we need to be cautious not to be over-impressed!
Written byPayal Kumar
Payal Kumar has worked in senior managerial positions in the higher education sector and in the corporate sector in India, including as Registrar and Professor at a university in north India, and earlier to this as Vice President Editorial and Production, SAGE India Publications Pvt Ltd. Amongst her scholarly publications, she has published a book on Indian women leadership with Palgrave-Macmillan: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/unveiling-womens-leadership-payal-kumar/?K=9781137547040 She can be contacted at [email protected]