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The Charisma Red Herring

Monday, August 12th, 2019

There have been a huge number of references in the press and media in recent weeks to “charisma” and the varying amounts the Tory leadership contenders each possess it.  Now that we have our tousled-haired PM in place, the references to his “charisma” and “charm” continue.

I understand that charisma can be a vote-winner and perhaps therefore a uniquely valuable commodity in a political leader (and especially interesting to the Tory party members who were able to vote on this occasion).  But I also find this focus strangely out of tune with what we know from (more current) research and practice about what makes good leaders. (And as a citizen, I am much more interested in their likelihood of being a successful leader in their role after they are voted in).

A recent study looking at references in academic literature show that in fact theories of “charismatic leadership” are now in decline (Zhao and Li, 2019).  Theories and research studies around Transformational Leadership (e.g. Banks et al, 2016), Emotional Intelligence (e.g. Stein and Book, 2011) and Humility (e.g. Ou et al, 2014) are more current, thorough and convincing. Emerging studies around leadership in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, Ambiguous) world are surely never more relevant and important (e.g. Bywater and Lewis, 2017).

These leadership approaches don’t necessarily throw out the key principles of charisma – finding ways to motivate and inspire are still important.  But they take this and multiply it, by describing the behaviours that create great leaders in a more detailed and holistic way.  We would tend to use this level of complexity to assess and develop organisation and business leaders, so why not political leaders?

For example, Ou et al’s (2014) work on Humility describes successful leaders as maintaining an accurate perception of their talents and especially of their limitations and imperfections, having self-confidence, being appreciative of others’ strengths, and being able to create a common vision and common values.

In summary, while certain “charismatic” behaviours may be important to inspire and enthuse others (e.g. Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1996), this is one small part of a complex jigsaw.

Are there any academic researchers out there looking at political leadership with a more up to date theoretical lens? I would love to hear more!

Here’s to broadening the debate and considering a more robust range of criteria when voting in the future leaders of our countries.

Sarah Clapperton is a Director at Bloojam Consulting and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with 20 years experience working in selection and development. She specialises in working with leaders and senior sales people.

 

References:

  • Banks, G.C., McCauley, K.D., Gardner, W.L., & Guler, C.E. (2016). A meta-analytic review of authentic and transformational leadership: A test for redundancy. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(4), 634-652.
  • Bywater, J. & Lewis, J. (2017) Leadership: What does it take to remain engaged as a leader in a VUCA world?.  Assessment and Development Matters, 9 (4), Winter 2017. 20-25.
  • Kirpatrick, S.A., & Locke, E.A. (1996). Direct and indirect effects of three core charismatic leadership components on performance and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 36-51.
  • Ou, A.Y., Tsui, A.S., Kinicki, A.J., Waldman, D.A., Xiao, Z., & Song, L.J. (2014). Humble Chief Executive Officers’ Connections to Top Management Team Integration and Middle Managers’ Responses. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(1), 34-72.
  • Stein, S.J., & Book, H.E. (2011). Emotional Intelligence and Your Success: Third Edition. Ontario: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Zhao, H & Li, C. (2019) A computerized approach to understanding leadership research. The Leadership Quarterly. 30 (4), 396-416