With last week’s death of the “Iron Lady,” former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, many world leaders and commentators looked back on her forceful and charismatic personality. Charismatic leadership is a popular media stereotype of strong leadership. As much as I’ve enjoyed reading Fortune magazine for the past few decades, they keep adding to this misguided leadership view by continually putting larger-than-life CEOs, politicians, and other leaders on their covers and featuring stories on their forceful personalities.
Numerous studies have shown that charisma isn’t one of the key qualities of many highly effective leaders. In Good to Great, Jim Collins’ deeply researched book on leadership and organizational effectiveness, he writes:
” …those of you with a strong, charismatic personality, it is worthwhile to consider the idea that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset. Your strength of personality can sow the seeds of problems, when people filter the brutal facts from you. You can overcome the liabilities of having charisma, but it does require conscious attention.”
A European study just published in Sloan Management Review this spring under the title, “Why Good Leaders Don’t Need Charisma,” reports on “The Downside of Charisma” with this conclusion:
“We found that leaders of the higher-performing companies were often not charismatic — and were, in fact, less likely to be charismatic than the leaders of the lower-performing companies. The problem with charismatic leaders is that exceptional powers of persuasion make it easy for them to overcome resistance and opposition to their chosen course of action.”
Zenger Folkman’s Extraordinary Leader research base identified 16 competencies that most clearly differentiate the best from the worst leaders as measured by employee engagement, productivity, customer service, quality, safety, turnover, and profitability. Charisma isn’t one of the differentiating leadership competencies.
The most requested leadership skill among the 500,000 direct reports, managers, peers, and others in the database is Inspiring and Motivating Others to High Performance. Zenger Folkman’s research shows there are at least six approaches to inspiring leadership. Only one involves what might be considered charisma. The other five are equally effective — and in some cultures superior — to strong and charismatic leadership.
Our research shows that many roads lead to extraordinary leadership performance. There is no one right or best path. The key is leveraging and building on a leader’s perceived strengths as seen by those he or she is leading.