I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the idea of charisma this week, including my experience with individuals who could be described as charismatic. This idea of charisma — of having traits like assertiveness, dominance, self-confidence and charm, combined with a desire to influence and strong moral values (PSY 533, 2017) — seems to weave its way through much of the leadership literature in one way or another. Sometimes it’s charisma itself that is highlighted, while at other times it is various traits that effective leaders possess which result in being labeled as charismatic. As I contemplate this idea of charisma, however, I find myself realizing how often I’ve been hesitant to trust charismatic individuals.
It seems I’m not alone in this hesitancy and distrust. Others have begun to explore what is called “the dark side of charisma” or destructive leadership (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013; Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser, 2007). Chamorro-Premuzic suggests charisma should be resisted, as it can dilute judgment, be addictive, and foster collective narcissism (2013). Russell (2016) indicates that unethical charismatic leaders leave victims in their wake. For what seems to be a fairly well-advertised positive leadership trait, charisma — at least the dark side of it — can also instill a real sense of fear and urgency in understanding and avoiding the pitfalls of having or experiencing charismatic leadership.
Among the traits and behaviors of the dark side of charisma are narcissism, overconfidence in one’s own capabilities, a refusal to accept/consider reality, discouraging dissent and sharing of different views, one-way communication channels, exaggeration of situations for heightened responses from others, selfishness in goal-setting, deceitfulness, manipulation…….the list goes on (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013; Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser, 2007; Russell, 2016). While all of this is off-putting, dark charismatic leaders retain and increase followership. How? Charm.
Charm, which elicits a positive emotional response from others, will often win out over force and reason, the two rational methods of influence (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013). This emotional response that makes charm influential is compounded by demonstrations of confidence, which can easily be mistaken for competence (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013). The confidence of a dark charismatic leader is likely furthered by their own belief in their infallibility (Russell, 2016). Followers, especially those with unmet basic needs, negative core self-evaluations, low maturity, ambition, and values and beliefs that align with the leader, are more likely to conform or collude with the dark charismatic leader, often when the environment is unstable, perceived to be threatened in some way, lacks checks and balances, and has cultural values, such as collectivism (Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser, 2007). Such followers are likely to follow the dark charismatic leader with unfaltering belief and blind acceptance of the leader’s truth; questions, if they do arise, may not be asked out of fear of the consequences for doing so (Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser, 2007).
Like Chamorro-Premuzic (2013), I can’t help but ask what someone is hiding when the charisma (and charm, specifically) is laid on thickly. Though not scientific or rational by any means, my sense is that if someone stops at nothing to make sure they are well-liked and supported by everyone, they are in it for personal gain, consciously or not. Even more of a red flag for me: when everyone raves and seemingly blindly supports such an individual. I have known some incredibly charismatic leaders, many of whom I have respected a great deal. Yet I have also seen the dark side of charisma creeping in, little by little. In my experience with such leaders, the combination of narcissism and blind support leads to something like an addiction to being seen as such a leader with the power and ego that it brings. I have seen followers fail to recognize the humanity in such leaders — their imperfections and mistakes — and have this quickly be followed by the leader’s own inability to see the same.
It seems as though the dark charismatic leaders named are the worst of the worst (Hitler seems to come up most often), as if to prove the extent to which the dark side of charisma can be destructive. In naming such notorious leaders, it almost seems as though the dark side of charisma is all-encompassing in its brutality and destruction of the leader and followers and/or victims. However, the creeping nature of the dark side of charisma I have experienced seems instead to suggest that it is a fine line that exists between the charismatic leader and the dark charismatic leader. Perhaps it is just one failure to recognize one’s own fallibility, or one unethical decision made for personal gain, or one small manipulation — at least at first.
Instead of considering only why a charismatic nature leaves me feeling ill at ease, I now find myself eager to bring a heightened sense of awareness to interactions with and observations of charismatic leaders. The fine line that exists is one that could all too easily be crossed, little by little, with a major shift in one direction or another over time. Perhaps by observing charismatic leaders and providing guidance and support, it is possible to help individuals course correct and remain on the path toward unending charismatic leadership and to avoid crossing that fine line into the dark side of charisma.
Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013). The Dark Side of Charisma. Conference Board Review, 50(2), 8-9.
Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 176-194. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.03.001
PSY 533. (2017). L09: Personality. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1868786/pages/l09-overview?module_item_id=23063457.
Russell, J. E. A. (2016, Mar 18). Career coach: Watch out for the dark side of charisma (posted 2016-03-18 11:04:12). The Washington Post Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1774287789?accountid=13158