How much charisma does a leader need?

A businessman gazing out on a wheatfield and blue sky.
Highly charismatic leaders tend to be strong on strategy and vision but weaker on operational details.
Thomas Barwick / Getty

Medium levels of charisma are ideal for effective business leadership, a new study suggests. Highly charismatic leaders, while strong on vision and strategy, tend to struggle with the operational side of things.

Research led by Jasmine Vergauwe, a psychologist at Ghent University in Belgium, compared charisma scores of high-level business leaders with their observed effectiveness in their roles, and the results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The charisma levels of leaders were measured by a 56-question personality test focusing on how bold, mischievous, colourful and imaginative each individual rated. In one study, these scores were compared with observations from each leader’s subordinates regarding their charismatic leadership, and the two sets of data were found to correlate significantly.

In a separate study, the researchers compared the observed effectiveness of 600 business leaders with their charisma scores, and found that as charisma increased, so did performance – but only up to a certain point.

“Leaders with both low and high charismatic personalities were perceived as being less effective than leaders with moderate levels of charisma,” says study co-author Filip De Fruyt, also at Ghent University.

The data suggests lower-charisma leaders struggle with vision, strategy and forward planning, while higher-charisma leaders were seen to be less effective with the operational, day-to-day side of business.

“While conventional wisdom suggests that highly charismatic leaders might fail for interpersonal reasons like arrogance and self-centeredness, our findings suggest that business-related behaviours, more than interpersonal behaviour, drive leader effectiveness ratings,” explains lead author, Vergauwe. 

“Our findings suggest that organisations may want to consider selecting applicants with mid-range levels of charisma into leadership roles, instead of extremely charismatic leaders.”

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