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