While I was reading the lecture this week one of the questions jumped out at me- when I stepped back to consider leaders in my life who I regarded as charismatic, I was struck by some that actually seem to be pseudo-charismatic on close examination. I thought about highly popular, well-liked leaders from my life: sports coaches from my youth, teachers, advisers, coworkers, and supervisors who all seemed to have that special certain something that could be described as charisma. Some do seem to be the real deal- having had a “lasting, positive impact” on my life and displaying ethical behavior as a role model (Pennsylvania State University, 2016). Northouse (2015) describes charisma as “a word that was first used to describe a special gift that certain individuals possess that gives them the capacity to do extraordinary things” (p.164). A trait perspective views charisma as “the combination of dominance, desire to influence, self-confidence, and strong moral values” (Pennsylvania State University, 2016).
The leaders I’d regarded as “charismatic” in my life were all confident extroverts who I admired and to a certain extent, idolized. One undergraduate professor had all of the hallmarks of a charismatic leader and her classes were always packed with eager students ready and willing to be influenced. I’d always labeled her as charismatic in my mind, but taking a closer look, her personality falls more in line with pseudo-charisma.
To me, the biggest difference between charisma and pseudo-charisma is the sense that a truly charismatic leader has strong moral values. I looked up to this professor, and myself and other students trusted her without ever really questioning if her behavior was ethical. A natural extrovert, she shared her life with her classes, and thrived on rapt attention and interest from her students. Looking back on it now, she was just over the line into narcissism, which was reflected in her desire to obtain positive feedback in the form of evaluations from students. Her desire for perfect reviews outweighed her obligation to provide complete, thorough instruction to her students. She often spent a large chunk of lecture time telling hilarious stories and leading off-topic discussions, which we students loved at the time. Her classes were fun and attendance was high- test scores unfortunately, did not always follow suit. Students started to point out missed test questions based on material she had never covered in lecture and a pattern emerged of her throwing out those test questions. Everybody won- or so we thought. True, our grades didn’t suffer but that wasn’t our professor’s primary concern- her priorities were self-serving all along. She remained popular, with excellent evaluations and attendance records but what appeared to be concern for her students was just a front for her own self-serving goals. I think a truly charismatic leader would have behaved differently- placing students first and taking seriously the obligation a professor has to cover the material and administer fair assessments. A disservice was done to the students through this professor’s narcissistic, pseudo-charismatic tendencies and none of us realized it at the time. We assumed that someone with those “personality traits that mimic true charisma” would have our best interests at heart (Pennsylvania State University, 2016).
It’s interesting, and a bit distressing, to see how easily pseudo-charisma can be overlooked or mistaken for true charisma in a leader.
Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University. (2016). Lesson 09: Personality. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1775390