Why You Shouldn't Recruit For Charisma In Executive Positions

When hiring the leader of any organization, such as a CEO, one of the desired personality traits that comes up time and time again is “charismatic.” People say that they want a dynamic leader, who can inspire and lead the masses.

But does charisma really lead to success? Is having a dominant personality that others instinctively follow necessarily a good thing?

Jim Collins and his team spent five years indirectly researching what makes a great leader while writing the book Good to Great. What Collins found was that hiring a “charismatic” leader for CEO actually had a negative correlation to a company’s overall success and the best leaders were often introverted types who let reason lead the way, instead of their personality.

At one point, Collins writes:

Indeed, for those of you with a strong, charismatic personality, it is worthwhile to consider the idea that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset. Your strength of personality can sow the seeds of problems, when people filter the brutal facts from you. You can overcome the liabilities of having charisma, but it does require conscious attention.

Understanding Collins’ Point

In the book, Collins states that there are three primary liabilities to having a charismatic CEO:

  1. People begin to make decisions to please the leader, instead of doing what’s right for the business.
  2. Too many people instinctively take a back-seat to the charismatic leader, so ideas are coming primarily from one person. And one brain is less than multiple brains.
  3. Even if the charismatic leader is successful, once they leave, the company crumbles because everything is so dependent upon them.

Collins is not alone on his thinking. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at the University College London, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Journal entitled “The Dark Side of Charisma.” His thesis?

Charisma “distracts and destructs.” Specifically, Chamorro-Premuzic argued that people start making decisions because they are charmed into them or to impress the charismatic leader, as opposed to making rational, data-driven choices.

Brian Evje, a writer for Inc.com, agreed as well. In his post, “3 Dangers of Charismatic Leadership,” Evje parrots Collins’ and Chamorro-Premuzic’s ideas, writing that often “organizations can become addicted to their charismatic leader” and that “charisma grows for its own sake and forgets its purpose.”

So What Should You Look For In A Leader?

In Good to Great, Collins describes “Level 5 leaders,” who were described as the best possible CEOs. Rather than being overly charismatic, these leaders have a clear grasp of both their own company and the market it falls in, and have a much more collaborative management style.

Often, companies led by Level 5 leaders had months of highly-spirited debates between board members before agreeing on a strategy. Also, Collins writes that these leaders never sugar-coated the situation they were in, instead dealing with the cold, hard facts.

Compare that to a style with a highly-charismatic leader. Often, they just brainstorm an idea themselves, and charm their team to back it 100 percent, regardless how smart it is.

Another key difference is that “Level 5” CEOs, largely because of their more collaborative approach, prop up the people around them, instead of ruling by fiat. Collins found that these Level 5 CEOs built companies that were successful after they left; while highly-charismatic CEOs often saw their companies crumble after they were gone.

How To Counter Charisma

I don’t believe that charisma should be seen as a negative in a leadership candidate. The problem is that really charismatic people often fall into the trap of believing their own hype, and soon are leading their employees into battle based off their “gut”, as opposed to the reality of the situation.

Collins used Winston Churchill – a highly charismatic man who also was a great leader – as an example of someone who didn’t allow his charisma to interfere with his leadership ability. Because he was such a great speaker, Churchill was able to rally people around his ideas, even if they were bad ones.

To check against this, Churchill demanded his statistical office give him the absolute worst facts of the war during World War II, as plainly as possibly. Churchill later said that these reports – basically, the tremendous amount of Allied soldiers that were being lost every day and the ground his side was giving daily, which was tremendous in the beginning – were key to keeping him grounded throughout the war.

Bottom line, the allure of the fiery general who fearlessly leads his troops into battle is an appealing one. But, what might work better is a more introverted person, who leads through asking questions, instead of giving answers.

About VoiceGlance

VoiceGlance is a cloud-based hiring tool used by forward-thinking companies to hire smarter, instead of harder. Learn more here.

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