Imagine you’ve been working at a company for six months and you’re given responsibility for a demanding, high-profile project. After months of hard work, you present your ideas to higher-ups.

You receive either a positive outcome  – “your project is so interesting to the senior management that you have been invited to a workshop next week…”

or negative outcome  – “your project will not receive any further support from senior management…”

Considering what your own emotional response to the outcome might be, which type of boss would you prefer to deliver the outcome to you?

A.  The high charisma boss
B.  The low charisma boss
C.  The boss who provides you with high individualized consideration (warm, friendly, mentoring)
D.  The boss who provides you with low individualized consideration (offhand, dismissive)

Jochen Menges of Cambridge’s Judge Business School in the UK discovered the following in his research on charisma:

After participants in his study answered the questions above, they filled out an Emotional Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ), a psychological evaluation tool used to assess the degree to which a person suppresses their emotions. Participants who had a high-charisma boss significantly suppressed their emotional reactions; whether they experienced a positive or negative outcome had no impact. It appears that charisma inhibits peoples emotional range, freezing and silencing them.

Winston Churchill had it — so did Eva Perón. Nelson Mandela had it — as did Adolf Hitler. Charisma is a force that can rally people during difficult times, but it can also blind and silence people and lead them to accept unwise actions, policies or conditions. And when it comes to leadership, political and professional, charisma matters more than we’d probably like to admit.

Like it or not, charisma matters when it comes to leadership. But we should be aware of the power that persuasion can have on us.

Awestruck and AweSTUCK
Charismatic leaders make followers “awestruck”, full of bottled-up emotion that followers are unable to openly express. Studies have shown that “emotion suppression” absorbs mental resources, deteriorates cognitive performance and impacts memory.” When a person is engaged in emotion suppression, they appear to be less able to make critical decisions, leaving them more vulnerable to individuals who have power. These cognitive impairment effects might underlie the powerful influence of charismatic leaders on followers. If followers deploy mental resources to inhibit emotional outbursts and maintain composure while charismatic leaders stir their hearts, followers may have less cognitive processing capacity available to evaluate the messages of charismatic leaders. Followers may, therefore, be more likely to endorse such leaders with little scrutiny. This might explain why followers under the influence of charismatic leaders appear to “suspend their ability to make critical judgments”.

When followers assign a high status to a charismatic leader, they are likely to adopt lower status behaviors for themselves, deferring their own power.

Watch this 1minute video where Ron Carucci reminds us that if we want a world where people abuse their power less, more of us need to find the courage to use our own power more.

Because leaders are able to exert charisma only as long as “the sentiments of the followers toward the leader are characterized by awe”, charismatic leaders and their followers are engaged in a continuous reaffirmation of the status differences between them. The early social psychologist McDougall (1919: 95) pointed out: “in the case of a person whom we intensely admire, we become shy, like a child in the presence of an adult stranger; we have the impulse to shrink together, to be still, and to avoid attracting his attention”

It’s long been thought that charismatic leaders inspire their followers or, at least, stir up their emotions

Charisma is persuasive signalling.  Boards of publicly traded companies have for some years supposed that they should appoint CEOs with charisma. The people they appoint following this dictum may deliver short-term profits but in the longer run they may create chaos and ruin.  Having charisma and being persuasive can get you elected or promoted but does nothing to guarantee that you have either good judgment or the moral qualities needed successfully to meet the challenges of leadership. This relates to an important distinction, that of leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness, now recognised in the leadership literature.

Qualities of the person associated with one are barely related to qualities associated with the other. Interestingly, and long overdue, among the qualities that research is beginning to identify as predictive of effectiveness is humility. Humility goes with recognising one does not have all the answers – necessarily true of anyone providing leadership to a complex enterprise – and being willing to seek and listen to advice. Hitler, Musssolini, and the reverend Jim Jones may all have had charisma but none was burdened with humility (and the same looks to be true of some current world leaders).

Charisma is not a catch-all, lovey-dovey thing like other leadership theories, including ethical leadership or authentic leadership, which are assumed to be effective by definition. At the end of the day, it is hard to understand why many believe that some kinds of leadership styles are always effective; it’s just not true.  People are willing to risk their money after seeing a charismatic speech, because charisma not only affects people’s preferences but also their beliefs about what they think other people will do. It creates a strong social norm to be cooperative.

Persuasive signalling matters for the reception and impact of one’s message but surely what should matter far more is the content of the message?

As we’ve read in previous paragraphs, whilst charismatic leaders inhibit the extent to which followers express emotions, leaders who exhibit individualized consideration tend to free followers to express their emotions. When leaders listen to followers, attend to their individual needs, operate on a one-to-one basis and forge friendly relationships then the emotions of followers are released.

Indeed, individual consideration is closely linked with interpersonal communication — not the inspirational, motivational kind that charismatic leaders propel, but the caring, attentive two-way communication by which leaders explain their actions and followers get a chance to ask questions and share their concerns. When offering individualised consideration, it is essential for leaders to “listen effectively” to their followers in order to understand followers’ needs and perspectives. In this process of mutual sharing of thoughts, ideas, opinions and feedback it’s more likely that followers will mention their feelings and disclose their emotions.

Train for Courageous Conversations so that you’re empowered to Speak Up when under pressure and silenced by the charismatic leader who provides responses that are not answers, who attempts to rationalize an action, who shames you as being the only one questioning the action or by promises of future correction of violations that are being acted out now.

Charismatic leaders should be aware of their emotionally suppressive effect on followers. Although putting followers in awe may reinforce the leaders’ standing in the group, awestruck followers are unlikely to benefit the group in the long-term. Given the perilous consequences of emotion suppression, charismatic leaders need to find ways to release followers’ emotions, perhaps by temporarily reducing their own status at times or by offering individualised consideration.

Unlike charismatic leaders, individually considerate leaders should recognize that they have an encouraging effect on followers’ emotion expression. Although they may circumvent the negative effects of emotion suppression, excessive levels of emotion expression from followers might also be detrimental, because uninhibited emotion expression violates social norms and can cause conflict. In the workplace, rampant emotion expression might impair efficient coordination among employees. If leaders find themselves amidst emotionally expressive followers they may be able to calm situations down by asserting status differences between themselves and their followers.

Followers need to become aware of the emotionally suppressive effects of charismatic leaders. Followers can potentially defend themselves against the inhibition of emotional expressiveness and its consequences by mentally reducing the status of charismatic leaders. It is not uncommon for people to remind themselves that a leader they admire is “only human”.

In conclusion, charismatic leadership, which involves inspiring followers toward a desired future, represents a distinctly different form of leadership than the mentoring and coaching that individually considerate leaders offer.

If you’ve enjoyed reading my blog, please share it with your network.

And if I can help, please get in touch.