Where is the Charisma? The Struggle for Female Leaders

Charismatic leaders are thought to have certain traits, but what exactly makes someone have charisma as a leader? “German sociologist Max Weber [defined charisma as] ‘Power legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.’” (Winkler, 2016) Both women and men should surely both have the same likelihood of having these characteristics. However, the few women that do hold leadership positions are often not thought of as charismatic leaders. Hillary Clinton is a prime example of what the public thought of as a female leader who was lacking in charisma. People did not find Hillary Clinton to be likeable or inspiring as a leader.

“Research from Harvard Business School posits a more exacting model, that inspiring leadership comes down to a combination of (conventionally) masculine and feminine characteristics—competence (ability to lead) and warmth (trustworthiness, empathy, connection). It is generally understood that women have had to err extravagantly on the side of competence—and jettison warmth—in order to be taken seriously as leaders. Davia Temin, a public relations expert who coaches CEOs, sees Clinton as “a victim of the need for women to grind out a lot of their emotion in order to be seen as competent.” (Winkler, 2016)

Often times, women find it hard to be seen as charismatic due to working so hard to prove themselves. There is little room for charisma when women need to put so much focus on proving to men that they can be competent leaders. In a male-dominated world, it is a challenge for women to get to the top and women who are perceived as emotional are perceived as weak. Therefore, women looking to succeed as leaders focus on ridding themselves of emotion and work twice as hard to prove themselves as strong, capable leaders. Unfortunately this leaves women in leadership positions seeming cold, unrelatable and uninspiring and does not make for a leader that people want at the end of the day.

However, at the same time, we have see that many men who are lacking in competence are able to become successful leaders simply due to the fact that they are viewed as being charismatic. Although, the reality for many of these male leaders is that they are, in fact, pseudo-charismatic leaders who are narcissistic and self-centered. So, amazingly, women work so hard to become capable and less emotional, thereby showing less charisma, just to lose out to incapable, pseudo-charismatic men.

“[W]hen it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women. This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.” (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013)

At times, women are wrongly encouraged to embrace these pseudo-charismatic traits like narcissism, which is not a helpful approach either. As women are less likely than men to have traits such as being self-centered or egotistical naturally, this is just another way that women are encouraged to push their natural emotions aside to be more like men.

So, perhaps it is best for women in leadership positions to embrace their genuine personable and emotional sides rather than working to stifle them. It is a tricky balance for women and there is always still a risk of being perceived as weak as soon as emotion is shown. However, I do personally believe there is room for both emotion and capability in our female leaders. Without an emotional and personable side, there is no inspiration and there is no charisma. If we are going to decrease the number of incompetent, pseudo-charismatic male leaders and increase the number of competent female leaders, those females also need to be truly charismatic leaders.


Winkler, E. (2016). Hillary Clinton’s charisma deficit is a common problem for female leaders. Retrieved from https://qz.com/767739/hillary-clintons-charisma-deficit-is-a-common-problem-for-female-leaders/

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013). Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men

PSY 533. (2017). L09. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l09-charisma?module_item_id=21902248


  1. Joy Moxon March 25, 2017 at 10:40 PM #

    Hi April,

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post. For this assignment I similarly wrote about another obstacle to women rising to positions of power – the perception that women are more ethical than men. When I read your post, it made me think of something Susan Cain (2012) said in a TED talk on the power of introverts. Cain noted that prior to the 20th century, American culture was a “culture of character,” in which people were valued for their “inner selves and moral rectitude” (Cain, 2012). American role models of the time were people of strong moral character, like Abraham Lincoln (Cain, 2012). In the 20th century, the U.S. transformed into a “culture of personality,” in which charisma became the most important quality, and “really great salesmen” were the new role models (Cain, 2012). It’s interesting to think that this culture of personality is a relatively new phenomenon. It makes me wonder if we could ever reverse course and focus on substance again. I’m not proposing that we go back to the “good old” days, which definitely weren’t good for women or minorities, but there’s something to be said for valuing conscientiousness at least as highly as charisma. Conscientious leaders are thoughtful, dependable, and organized and “possess the forethought and concern that are necessary to behave in an ethical manner” (PSU, 2017).

    For now it seems our cultural emphasis on charisma is here to stay, so how can we be more inclusive of women? In your post, you note that it can be difficult for women to be viewed as charismatic, because women are taught to hide their emotions. You make a call for society to value women leaders for their authentic selves. I completely agree with you, and I would add that this should apply to all leaders, both women and men. When individuals don’t feel comfortable being themselves, not only does it negatively impact their sense of self, but it’s also detrimental to the organization in which they work (Yoshino & Smith, 2013, p. 13). When women feel the need to hide or “cover” their true selves to fit masculine norms, they are less committed to their organization and therefore more likely to leave (Yoshino & Smith, 2013, p. 13). Regardless of whether the objective is electing more women to political offices, promoting more women to the C-suite, or simply creating a positive work environment, creating a culture of inclusion is simply the ethical thing to do.

    Cain, S. (2012). The power of introverts. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4&feature=youtu.be

    Penn State University. (2017). PSY 533 L09 Personality. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l09-introduction?module_item_id=21902245

    Yoshino, K. & Smith, C. Deloitte University. (2013). Uncovering talent: A new model of inclusion. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/about-deloitte/us-inclusion-uncovering-talent-paper.pdf

  2. Salina S Evans March 24, 2017 at 6:42 PM #

    Hi April,

    I truly enjoyed reading your blog. It was interesting to read your take on charisma and it’s role in gender inequality. To add fuel to the fire, according to Wolfers (2015), there are more C.E.O.’s named John (5.3%) than are total women (4.1%) C.E.O’s among the share of C.E.O.’s of S.&P. 1500 companies. Ironically, investment companies with women on the board see 36.4% greater returns (Smedley, 2014). Additionally, in a study conducted on gender bias in the computer science field, it was found that women may actually be better coders than men, however, they’re code is only viewed better if no one knows the code was produced by women (Weisul, 2016). This is why some companies are using ‘blind auditions’ to hire top talent (Smith, 2015). A blind audition in the job search context means that applicants are “first judged on their skills, not on where they studied, where they grew up, or whether they are male or female (Smith, 2015).” Essentially stripping the resume of all biodata which can impact the ethicality of a decision (PSY533, L8, 2017). A recent analysis of the companies who utilize this technique found that 54% of those who participated were women, while 46% were men. About 58% of those selected to an interview after the blind audition round were women, and 68% of those who ended up getting hired were women (Smith, 2015). There is something to be said about this data. Given its evident success, more companies should employ ‘blind auditions.” In effect, the world may end up seeing more top charismatic female leaders.


    PSY 533. 2017. L08: Individual Differences. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l08-introduction?module_item_id=21902232

    Smedley, T. (2014). The evidence is growing-there really is a business case for diversity. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/4f4b3c8e-d521-11e3-9187-00144feabdc0

    Smith, J. (2015). Why companies are using ‘blind auditions’ to hire top talent. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/companies-are-using-blind-auditions-to-hire-top-talent-2015-5

    Weisul, K. (2016). Looks like women code better than men, if no one knows they’re women. Inc. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/kimberly-weisul/women-better-coders-men.html

    Wolfers, J. (2015). Fewer women run big companies than men named john. The Upshot. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/upshot/fewer-women-run-big-companies-than-men-named-john.html?_r=0

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