Too Much Charisma Can Actually Hurt a Leader's Effectiveness

Ronald Reagan, pictured here while campaigning for the California governership, is often cited as one of the more charismatic modern American leaders. Supporters reach out in this 1965 image to shake hands with the future U.S. president. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

We tend to judge everything from sports teams to entire nations by the charisma of their leaders — or to be more specific, by how much personal charm, force of personality, and ability to inspire they possess. Historians call it the Great Man Theory, which holds that certain people are born with qualities that enable them to rise to the top and lead the multitudes.

In the business world, charisma is particularly valued attribute, as evidenced by the 2012 Harvard Business Review article "Why You Need Charisma." The article describes a pseudonymous example, Paul Lee, and his ability to win over potential investors and others through personal magnetism so compelling that he can take a half-hour commuter flight and emerge with a plane full of new friends. As the article's author, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, wrote: "His leadership model involves making sure all feel that they are special and will have their particular needs met, yet also feeling that they are all in it together."


Since charisma is so potent, you might think that a leader couldn't get enough of it. But as it turns out, that's not the case. In a newly published study in the Journal of Personality and Psychology, researchers collected the charisma scores for hundreds of business leaders calculated using the Hogan Development Survey, a psychological test, and then compared them to how their peers, subordinates and bosses actually assessed their effectiveness.

The researchers found that as charisma increased, so did others' perception of a business leader's effectiveness — but only up to a point. Leaders at low and high ends of the charisma spectrum, as it turned out, were perceived as less effective than those who were judged to have only moderately magnetic personalities.

"Our findings suggest that organizations may want to consider selecting applicants with mid-range levels of charisma into leadership roles," said Jasmine Vergauwe, a doctoral student at Belgium's Ghent University and the study's lead author, in a press release, "instead of extremely charismatic leaders."