Business sites like Inc.com are jam-packed with tips to become more charismatic, profiles of charismatic leaders, and excavations of their habits and tricks. The implied message is crystal clear — charisma is a valuable tool to get ahead in business and life and you should do everything in your power to cultivate it.
That message is also wrong, according to a huge number of experts. Charisma, they argue, is often just narcissism in disguise, and while it dazzles in the short term it usually leads to destruction for both companies and individuals in the longer term.
The case against charisma
What is charisma exactly? The dictionary tells us it’s “compelling charm that can inspire devotion in others.” That sounds nice. The problem is what humans generally find charming. We’re dazzled by confidence and self-assurance. The person who claims to have all the answers is generally the one most likely to end up in leadership.
This tendency to follow perceived strength may have made sense back when we were living in small groups huddled around fires terrified of toothed predators. But in our current complex, unpredictable world, claiming to have all the answers is more often a sign of hubris than it is a signal someone can keep their followers safe from the lions at the door.
A fast-changing world requires the humility to know what you don’t know, take others’ ideas onboard, admit when you were wrong, and change course. “Charisma” often gets in the way of all that. Which is probably why a mountain of data shows charismatic/narcissistic leaders lead to more risk and lawsuits but less integrity and team cohesion.
I’m summing up the case against charisma here, but it didn’t originate with me. “Don’t talk to me about charisma,” Insead professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries recently wrote. “In reality, many people labeled as charismatic are also quite narcissistic, with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.”
Columbia’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic complained on HBR that “those in charge of judging leadership potential often mistake confidence for competence.” While Stanford’s Charles O’Reilly highlighted recent research on “grandiose narcissism,” warning “these individuals have high self-esteem. They are much more agentic, more extroverted, and really more dangerous. And evidence shows that they’re achieving high positions in organizations.”
I could go on but I think you get the point. It’s true that charisma often gets rewarded with promotions and pay raises. But the sad reality is this so-called charisma often amounts to little more than egotistical overconfidence and disregard for others that ends up hurting people in the end. If that’s “charisma,” do you really want to aim for it?
What to aim for instead
Hopefully, you answered no to that question (if not, maybe reexamine your values). Which raises a couple of important and intertwined points. First, if charisma is a terrible goal, what’s a better one? A host of research on everything from the social lives of teenagers to the methods of successful actors suggests focusing on serving others and improving their lives leads to a more enduring, less destructive type of likability and power.
For entrepreneurs who are in a position to elevate others to leadership positions, perhaps the more important question is, if you’re trying to avoid being swayed by charisma, how should you evaluate leadership potential? Helpfully, there’s a ton of advice out there. Much of it centers on screening less for people’s ability to talk a good game and instead focusing on real world outcomes and the views of those who have already worked for a candidate.
But both research and star Wharton professor Adam Grant also suggest a simpler shortcut to sniffing out charismatic narcissists. People often project their own character onto others, so if you want to know if someone is an egotistical taker just ask them how many people they think behave selfishly. If they offer a high percentage in response, consider that a major red flag that their exterior charisma is likely hiding a narcissistic interior.