Charismatic leaders can be inspiring, but there can be a dark side to charming personalities

What is it about charisma that captivates us to the point where we can listen intently for hours to a speaker or carry out substantial requests by a charming leader?

In theology, charisma is defined as a gift or power from the divine. In other words, charisma can confer a god-like status on an individual. Charismatic people are respected, revered and adored.

When we describe someone as charismatic, we usually offer it in praise of their character. They are — we believe — good people whom we can trust.

However, charisma, just like many other traits, is neither positive nor negative, but rather, depends on how it’s used by both charismatic individuals and their followers.

In order for charismatic leaders to thrive, they need followers not only to recognise the value of their cause, but to fully immerse themselves in whatever vision is being presented, which often creates an attitude of “them and us.”

A potent tool of influence

In the most extreme examples, there have been a number of cults that have led to the mass suicide of followers who wholeheartedly believed in the revelations of their charismatic leader. Such is its power, charisma can help to deliver the greatest of goods, or plunge people into the depths of darkness and despair.

Of course, the negative side of charisma doesn’t require dangerous environments in order to thrive. In the world of politics and business, we have seen an abundance of cases where charming leaders have used their charm to suit whatever agenda they have in mind — and it doesn’t take much to draw people in.

Take, for example, current US President Barack Obama’s first-term campaign to be elected to the White House.

Almost a decade has passed since he first ran for president, and the chances are that most of us would have forgotten any key points from his debates, or election promises made on the campaign trail. However, we are able to clearly recall his campaign slogan: “Yes We Can!”

I remember watching as Obama would travel across the country, and being amazed by throngs of people chanting, “Yes We Can!” in unison.

Yes we can, what? I was sure few of these people could answer the question; so caught up they were in the euphoria and theatre that is American politics.

That’s not to say that Obama is a leader with sinister motives. Over his two terms in office, he has helped America progress, not least of all through the provision of “Obamacare” which has helped millions of previously uninsured people gain access to affordable healthcare.

However, what Obama’s charismatic campaigns have shown is that charisma is a potent tool that can have a powerful effect over those who are drawn into its orbital path.

On one level, charisma can be problematic in the sense that it’s those who buy into an ideology or a personality who educe the effects born of charisma. Obama, or any other charismatic leader, wouldn’t have nearly as much success if it wasn’t for eager supporters so easily influenced, as exemplified by the “Yes We Can!” message.

Tread carefully

Charisma is, of course, extremely useful for leaders in connecting with others and driving a message home. While it’s not an inherently negative personality trait, it is useful to keep some level of caution intact whenever we feel we’re being sucked in by someone but we’re not entirely sure why. As ever, it’s usually those who believe they “never fall” for such traits that become most affected by them.

Just as advertising is a billion-dollar business because it knows how to manipulate human nature, charismatic leaders know how to succeed in getting their message across by tapping into our psychological cues and triggers.

The best defence is to always keep a healthy dose of scepticism in the face of grand personalities and sugar-sweet messages. This can go some way to making sure any decisions we make are well-informed and consciously taken.

3 potential dangers of charisma

It can disguise damaging traits Being naturally drawn to charming people, as many of us are, allows charismatic people to hide their less attractive characteristics such as ego, manipulation, deceit, and selfishness. Think Donald Trump and you have an idea of how charisma can work for charming people at the expense of others.

Charisma produces collective narcissism This is something widely seen in politics, but it also exists in business and other arenas. Democrat or Republican? Apple or Microsoft? Liverpool or Manchester United? The sense of belonging to a group enhances our adoration of the candidate, boss, or football team, and it also increases our own sense of pride within ourselves, as well as the group to which we “belong.” This leads to a deluded sense of superiority over others, bolstered by an abundance of justifications when needed.

Charisma is addictive Just as pop stars come to depend on the love from their followers, business leaders can become addicted to the approval of their employees. The biggest problem this causes is distraction from the goals of the business. Followers also become addicted to charismatic individuals and so, when problems arise, the reality is often distorted in a bid by both parties to maintain the charismatic image of the leader.

For more content on leadership, careers, HR, and other lovely, helpful stuff, please feel free to connect with me on Twitter @RealSClarke

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