L09: Charisma, Machismo, and the Proverbial Glass Ceiling

The word “charisma” is loaded with innuendo. Especially within the context of leadership the word carries connotations of machismo.  The word  evokes images of images of  grand masculine figures. Looking through some of the common definitions, the word charisma includes character traits that are more readily categorized as male traits. Therefore, the notion of charismatic leadership automatically holds an inherent bias against women. For example, one common definition of charisma provided by House includes the following traits: “Dominance, desire to influence, self-confidence and strong moral values.” (Penn State, 2016)

Generally, textbooks and leadership materials will frequently highlight male figures as prime examples of charismatic leadership. As an example, the Penn State lecture notes provide John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Gandhi as models of charismatic leadership. This is not surprising as there is an inherent cultural bias that associates paternalistic traits with the type of charisma that is associated with strong leadership. Therefore, women are stuck in a no-man’s land of trying to define what charisma means within the context of female leadership. Women are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, by taking on the more dominant traits of charisma they risk being disliked, and by not taking on the traits associated with strong leadership they risk being overlooked.

Dominance, one of the traits listed to define charisma, is societally more aligned with traditional male behavior and more palatable when males exhibit  the trait. Dominance in women is judged harshly and less favorably than men. From an early age little girls are told they are “bossy” when they take a dominant position on the playground. It seems, men and women play by a different set of rules when it comes to charisma.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines charisma as “a special charm or appeal that causes people to feel attracted and excited by someone.” Charm is a fundamental component of charisma and what is culturally acceptable and charming in women is fundamentally different than what is culturally considered charming for men. Generally more passive traits such as a pleasant disposition, nurturing, friendly, sweet are concepts that are more closely aligned with female charm. None of these words evoke strength and/or dominance. And in turn, it is strength and dominance that is closely associated with charismatic leadership. Is it any wonder that women, even those running for the highest office in the country, as was recently the case with Hillary Clinton are still criticized for not being “smiley” enough?

We’ve yet got a long way to go to before we reach gender parity in our organizations and within society. In order to move closer to equality, we will need to do re-evaluate some long held beliefs and investigate inherent biases that are built into our organizations, education, and our sciences such as the study of leadership. Maybe, as an initial step, we could at least begin to reevaluate the role of charisma in leadership. Rather than relying on societal and cultural interpretations of what is charismatic, we should focus on real, tangible, and quantifiable competencies against which both male and female leaders can be evaluated. That is the only way to ensure that our inherent biases do not continue to subjugate women in lesser roles.






Penn State. (2016). PSY533: Ethics & Leadership. Lesson 04: Cognition, Leadership and Ethics. Retrieved from:https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1775390/pages/l04-development?module_item_id=20678676



  1. Husiela Farani-simmons March 27, 2016 at 10:14 PM #

    Thank you so much for your kind reply, Randy. I continue to be impressed with your vast experience and background. I appreciate your comment and I find it refreshing, to say the least, that you had these experiences with female leaders in the Air Force. What an interesting career you’ve had.

  2. Randy Aaron Kunkleman March 27, 2016 at 10:14 AM #


    Once again I’ve enjoyed reading your post. You brought the term charisma into an interesting light. I actually read your post to my wife and we both agree with your thoughts about how charisma is received by others based on ones gender.

    During my career in the Air Force, women comprised about 19% of the force and I suspect, a much smaller percentage occupied leadership positions. However, as I reflected on my career, I realized that about 50% of the commanders that I served were females. This gave me a good starting point to measure your thoughts vs. my experience.

    I had the pleasure of working for two commanders, in particular that, by definition, could be described as charismatic. Both had a strong desire to influence, they were self-confident and had strong moral values. However, there was an ingredient missing from one that may have made a difference with how she was perceived by her subordinates and that is likeableness. This ingredient may be a necessity for every leader to be described as charismatic regardless of gender. I found that my female commanders had a much more positive impact on me and helped me mold my leadership style as a result. I had a much better experience serving female commanders by far and I have no problem describing them as charismatic.

    Thanks again for the post!



    Penn State. (2016). PSY533: Ethics & Leadership. Lesson 04: Cognition, Leadership and Ethics. Retrieved from:https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1775390/pages/l04-development?module_item_id=20678676

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar