People are drawn to those who look and act the romanticized role of the leader. But charismatic leadership can have a dark side.
– Commentary from elsewhere covered by Quincy Quarry News.
If humble people make the best leaders, why then do people all too often fall for charismatic narcissists?
The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us (usually, ed.) becomes a better place.
At least so asserts an article from Harvard Business Review which is published by the Harvard Business School and thus is at best only second to the arrogance of the Harvard Law School.
In any event, this Harvard Business Review article posits that humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback.
Such leaders help their associates to build up their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, collaborate, share information, and so create a community that channels individual efforts into the good of all involved.
Even better, one study found that a leader’s humility can be contagious.
However, instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.
Research evidence on charismatic leadership reveals that charismatic people are more likely to become endorsed as leaders because of their high energy, unconventional behavior, and heroic deeds.
While charisma is conductive to orchestrating positive large-scale transformations, there can be a “dark side” to charismatic leadership.
Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo describe it this way in their seminal book: “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.”
A clinical study illustrates that when charisma overlaps with narcissism, leaders tend to abuse their power and take advantage of their followers.
Another study indicates that narcissistic leaders tend to present a bold vision of the future, and this makes them appear to be charismatic in the eyes of others.
Why then are such leaders more likely to rise to the top?
One study suggests that despite being perceived as arrogant, narcissistic individuals radiate “an image of a prototypically effective leader.” Narcissistic leaders know how to draw attention toward themselves. They enjoy the visibility and it often takes time for people to see leaders’ flaws.
Even so, it is not that charismatic narcissists cannot ever make good leaders. In some circumstances, they can. For example, one study found that narcissistic CEOs “favor bold actions that attract attention, resulting in big wins or big losses.”
A narcissistic leader can thus prove effective in a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
Whether or not such narcissist leaders are more effective in such situations than humble leaders, however, is not clear.
Moreover, humble leaders are not incapable of charisma.
Researchers agree that we could classify charismatic leaders as “negative” or “positive” by their orientation toward pursuing their goals versus those of their groups. These two sides of charismatic leadership have also been called personalized and socialized charisma.
Although the socialized charismatic leader has the aura of a hero, such is moderated by low authoritarianism and a genuine interest in the collective welfare.
Conversely, the personalized charismatic leader’s perceived heroism is coupled with high authoritarianism and high narcissism.
In turn, when followers feel dispossessed, they are more likely to form personalized relationships with a charismatic leader.
And in a germane aside, if the relationship is personalized, factually-based and valid differences of opinion are not only ignored by the personalized narcissistic leader, they are also all too often reacted to with vehemence by the leader’s followers.
Socialized relationships, on the other hand, are established by followers with a clear set of values who view the charismatic leader as a means to achieve collective action.
The problem is that we select negative charismatic leaders much more frequently than in just the limited situations where the risk they represent might pay off.
Their followers are all too often enthralled by negative charismatic leaders showmanship and through such leaders’ sheer magnetism, they can transform their environments into a competitive game in which their followers also become more self-centered and worse, so giving rise to organizational narcissism, as one study shows.
If humble leaders are more effective than narcissistic leaders, why then do we all too often choose narcissistic individuals to lead us?
The “romance of leadership” hypothesis suggests that we generally have a biased tendency to understand social events in terms of leadership and people tend to romanticize the figure of the leader.
Additionally, research shows that our psychological states can unduly influence our perceptions of charismatic leaders.
For example, high levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma.
As a result, crises increase not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also our tendency to perceive charisma in the leaders we already follow.
Economic and social crises thus become a unique testing ground for charismatic leaders.
In a time of crisis, it’s easy to be seduced by superheroes who could come and “rescue” us, but who possibly then plunge us into greater peril.
While this may sound hopeless, there is another way of looking at things: we have the leaders we deserve.