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Leadership: When Charisma Crowds Out Humility

Leadership: When Charisma Crowds Out Humility
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Many years ago, in my work at the University of Michigan Athletic Department, I wondered what we should look for in a head coach when there was a vacancy. Charisma was near the top of my list of criteria. I was young, naïve, and inexperienced. Forty-five years of research and study have proven how wrong I was. After competency, the most effective attribute of a sustainably successful leader is humility. Charisma can help, but it can disguise an ulterior motive that will ultimately inhibit organizational sustainability.

As all of us are insecure to some degree, it is the profound confidence of charismatic leaders that makes us feel they know what they’re doing in a time when we may not be so sure. Their confidence provides a sense of safety. We ourselves would only use that forceful demeanor if we were sure we were doing the right thing, and we assume the same of others.

Since the COVID crisis, therapists have been overwhelmed with clients who feel insecure. Life had changed dramatically, resulting in a crisis of insecurity. The world we know continues to change in fundamental, extreme ways, and with that, insecurity in people’s lives has grown. With this insecurity, people are more vulnerable to charismatic leaders, and unfortunately, those who lack the essential generative leadership characteristics.

Some charismatic leaders lead for the benefit of others, but too often charismatic leaders can be narcissistic, and they lead for their own personal gain. These self-serving leaders have learned that in a crisis, people are more insecure and more inclined to follow the charismatic leader. As a result, they often create crises to exploit that vulnerability in their quest to gain more control. The charismatic leader may seem to provide the path to greater safety and security, but here is the crucial question: Are they motivated by a desire to work in the community’s best interest or to serve their own ambitions?

Yes, we are all insecure, but the more we believe in ourselves and our own Foundation of Greatness, the better leaders and supporters we become, and the less vulnerable we are to the impact of any charismatic leader who is in it only for themselves. When honoring our Foundation of Greatness, we move through life fulfilled, learning from our mistakes, ultimately having a positive impact.

If you would like to learn more about the double-edged sword of charisma, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior Margarita Mayo provides a wonderful read in her article for Harvard Business Review.

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