The Charisma Trap

The Charisma Trap

Teacher: Describe the qualities of a leader

Classmate raises hand: “Oooo oooo pick me!”


“They’re tall, athletic build, dress nicely, good looking. Usually male, could be female, white..”

“That’s all external. What about internal characteristics?

The other classmate raises hand

“They are charismatic!”

“Now that’s the answer I was looking for. Well done”

Pretty typical. Every time, for the last 30 years, when I ask groups to describe traits of leadership charisma shows up on the list in the top five. What words are usually associated with charisma?

Charming, inspiring, stands out from the crowd, gregarious, exciting, enthusiastic, persuasive… What could be wrong with that?

Well… in addition to demagogues tending to be charismatic. So are cult leaders, gang leaders.. From Adolph Hitler to Idi Amin and Jim Jones, we’ve all seen charisma’s dark side. But by itself, it’s not a bad quality.

As then-candidate for president Barack Obama said in 2008: “It’s true that speeches don’t solve all problems. But what is also true is if we cannot inspire the country to believe again, then it doesn’t matter how many policies and plans we have.”

Here are three truths about charisma:

*It’s more of a personality trait than an indicator of good character or leadership ability

*The charismatic leader is under pressure to produce and perform “continual magic” for the crowd

*One can be incredibly influential and inspiring without it


If you think of charisma as that thing that attracts people and gets them exited, it is clear that some people can do that and some people can’t. Some people can tell a funny story of what happened on the bus and make it sound like a feature-length comedy. Other people can put you to sleep after the words, “Guess what happened to me?”

You can see toddlers who get excited about things more than their phlegmatic siblings, but they can be just as good or just as bad. I have seen kids in the playground (as a mom and grandma) leading other kids in a game. Some are nice, fun, and motivational. Some are bossy and the other kids, the followers, are not necessarily having fun.

When President Barack Obama burst onto the national scene, he was this senator from Illinois making an explosive speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. People immediately spoke of him as a future presidential contender without knowing much about him. Years later (after, I’m sure, thousands of people persuaded him to run) he had his first televised debate with his opponent, Senator John McCain, who was charismatic in his own right. Well, truth be told, while Obama has charisma coming out of his fingernails, off stage he communicates in subdued, sometimes plodding, detail. Even his humor (which he has in spades) is more offhand commentary or as the straight man than Robin Williams mania. That first debate “performance” was widely criticized as lacking charisma, even though he answered all the questions effectively and in great detail. In his second debate he turned on the charisma and was now seen as one who “won” the debates. His legacy as a leader is not actually based on his charisma, but on his character, integrity and competence.


In the book Leader’s Companion – Insight on leadership through the ages, Nadler and Tushman list “the need for continuing magic” as a common limitation. As one friend said long ago, “The way you grab them is the way you have to keep them.” If the charismatic person is having a mellow day people tend to ask what’s wrong. If this leader is usually riveting as a speaker, they’d better be riveting e v e r y  t i m e. This is what people come to expect. It can also be a burden.

Many leaders are aware of this expectation but defy it to remain true to themselves. Holding exciting staff meetings might be fun, but after a while, the staff will find themselves frustrated by the lack of focus or follow-through. While they were at first entertained, they now find themselves non plussed.

The magician has run out of tricks and the audience is no longer amused. Again, there is nothing wrong with being charismatic (as I am often accused of being 😉 But there must be substance to go along with the style.

There is a beauty and a power in leaders who would be considered the opposite of charismatic.


When you think of an inspiring leader or person what really comes to mind? Try to think of 4 and think through their traits one-by-one. When I think of one of my mentors and most inspiring leader, I see a woman with charisma as a personality trait. What changed my life was her generosity in taking me under her wing and seeing possibilities in me I had not yet imagined. A dignified Black woman who thrived as a minority in her institution by opening so many doors for so many people of all backgrounds to serve marginalized and oppressed community. Starting programs serving the homeless, hearing impaired, people in prison and others. It was not her charisma – it waa her character.

It is inspiring to see leaders who consistently embody traits we value most. We are inspired by courage when under fire, a non-patronizing compassion for those in need. Inspired by people who are the same in private as their public portrayals, who are as loyal to their spouses as they are to their company or team. People who never lie even if the truth is inconvenient and might lose them popularity or even their job. I can go on and on, but the message is clear. To inspire is a character trait that bears no relation on the ability to generate a lot of hoopla. In fact, the greatest danger is making peo0ple in an organization, a business or a country utterly captivated by any one person.

Here is business guru, auithor, researcher and speaker Jim Collin’s take.

Past models have glorified the individual leader, especially when he or she was an entrepreneur. And charismatic-style CEOs understandably find it hard to let go of the buzz that comes from having an intense, direct personal influence. But a charismatic leader is not an asset; it’s a liability companies have to recover from. A company’s long-term health requires a leader who can infuse the company with its own sense of purpose, instead of his or hers, and who can translate that purpose into action through mechanisms, not force of personality.

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