Do You Really Need Charisma to Lead?

Not everyone has the charismatic superhero personality that captivates a room, and attracts followers like metal filings to a magnet.  For the many of us who may be a little short on vitamin C (charisma), are we doomed to permanent follower-ship while the outgoing back-slappers take over the world?  I’d say don’t give up hope.  Here’s why.

Do You Really Need Charisma to Lead

The Right Diagnosis?

I almost lost my job because of a vitamin C deficiency.

My Company of 120 paratroopers that I commanded in Panama was doing well.  Scores were up.  Training exercises had gone well.  We were making steady progress in all the right areas.  But the new boss had been watching for only a few weeks before he wanted to sit down with me for a counseling session.

He gave me feedback very skillfully.  By the end he had led me to the conclusion that I should be more outgoing, more dynamic.  He thought I should be out there exhorting the troops regularly.  To him, that was what leadership was supposed to look like.

For the past year, I had been doing my best rendition of the “quiet professional,” but apparently it came across to him as sullenness.  Perhaps others read it the same way; I don’t know.  What he wanted was a charismatic cheerleader.

So I gave it a shot, and put myself on an regimen of imaginary “charisma pills.” I made an effort to be more demonstrative, wave my hands around more, raise my voice a little, impart some enthusiasm.

But it felt artificial.  It wasn’t me.  I’m sure anyone else bought it, either.  It must have been enough to get by, because the boss didn’t “shorten my tour of duty.” But I’m pretty sure he was glad when it was time for me to move on.  Despite the results my unit was turning in, I didn’t fit the mold of the charismatic leader that he had in mind.

Looking back, I think he was making a mistake.  Charisma does not equal Leadership, though it’s easy to conflate the two.

Charisma does not necessarily equal #leadership. Click To Tweet

I’m secretly envious of those who can sweep into a room and capture everyone’s attention.  It seems effortless to them and people want to naturally follow along.  But I’ve come to realize that’s not the end game.

It’s Not About Charisma

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins does an excellent job of disassembling the idea that the best, most effective leaders have to be charismatic.  One of his surprising discoveries was that the Great Leaders were in fact not the most charismatic.

They were Level 5 Servant Leaders who had placed the long-term welfare of the company above all else.  They practiced “Assertive Humility” in guiding the company to achieve its vision. (My post about the Humble Leader Paradox here.)

But a second of Collins’ discoveries may have slipped by unnoticed:  Not only were the charismatic leaders not the “best” leaders, sometimes they were the worst.

Among his findings, charismatic leaders:

  • Smothered.  The strong personalities tended to smother the inputs and contributions of others.  If they know what they are doing, great, but they miss out on the benefits of diversity, and if they are wrong, watch out!
  • Stole the spotlight.  All the focus is on them.  When it was time for them to leave, no one had been developed to take their place, and the company suffered.
  • Wanted others to fail.  Their reputation rises when the company struggles after they leave.   After all, doesn’t it just prove what a great leader they were?  Actually no, not really; not if they didn’t set up the company for long term success.
  • Were effective.  At least in the short term.  Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler from the verge of catastrophe in one of the biggest turnarounds in business history.  But even Chrysler was bought out in the end.  In three quarters of the cases he looked at, Collins found that large personalities either contributed to the long-term failure of the company, or at least constrained it to a future of mediocrity.

I’m not trying to suggest that every charismatic person has an enormous stifling ego.  But the ones Collins highlights certainly did, and it led to failure within their organizations.  Charisma isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

What do You Want in a Leader?

So, what does matter?  Ask that question in a different way:  What would you want in a leader?  How about some of these:

  • A clear vision that inspires
  • Consistent, focused dedication to fulfilling that vision
  • A sense that what I do contributes directly to helping the team get there
  • Empathy and concern for my well-being
  • The opportunity to contribute ideas to improve
  • Opportunity to learn and grow and move up as I deserve it
  • The sense that I matter
  • Mutual trust

None of these require a larger-than life personality.  They do require focus, discipline, competence, and empathy.

Flash and splash might make a short-term impact, and sometimes that is exactly what you need.  But in the long run, it is more about the simple things:

Not drama but stability.

Not “false motivation” but honest commitment.

Not a flavor of the month approach, but sticking to the vision and following through.

Charisma – The Takeaway

Having a winning personality is great.  If you have one, treasure it, use it.  But make sure that as a leader, you are growing your teammates, giving them a voice, and supporting their efforts as you all pursue the vision together.

If you are not the charismatic type, don’t give up hope.  A stable, focused, self-less approach to leadership may not be flashy, but it can produce spectacular results.

Think about what you want in a #leader, then be that person. Click To Tweet

In that way, we all have the potential to be superheroes; no prescription necessary.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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