We may all disparage magical thinking – the belief that our thoughts or actions have consequences far beyond what the evidence supports. But when it comes to leadership, magical thinking appears to be alive and well, according to a study led by Maia Young, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Which leads to an interesting question: When should leaders show the hard work and drama behind their decisions? And when is it better to just make the pronouncements, show the results, and move on?

Broadly speaking, the study, called, “Managerial Mystique: Magical Thinking in Judgments of Managers’ Vision, Charisma, and Magnetism,” shows how people perceive the ability and influence of a leader, particularly when a leader is successful. (JJ McCormick wrote about the study here, for Inc.)

When people see that a leader is successful, but they don’t know how that success was achieved (what I’ll call the view behind the curtain), they are likely to say that the leader is charismatic and visionary rather than hardworking.  The study refers to this perception of a leader as a “mystique [that] arises from the intuitive logic that psychologists and anthropologists call magical thinking.” We want to believe in, or at least let ourselves believe in, the magic of leadership.

The authors draw a comparison between leaders and magicians. Even though we know, intellectually, that elephants do not transform into mice, most of us happily go along with magic shows nonetheless. We’re not bothered by the things we did not see – the things that actually made the magic “happen.”

So how, and when, should you part the curtain? Here are some considerations:

  • Perception is reality.  This is especially true, and felt, in organizational life.  The official and unofficial company hierarchy plays out on many levels, and leaders are continually looked upon for a sense of direction.  The process that a leader uses to determine and communicate this direction can be as important as the direction itself.  One must be aware of the deliberate choice to demonstrate either more of less of the “mechanics” of leadership – and how these choices will be perceived by the organization as strong signals of reality.
  • What is most important for you to reveal?  When you decide to pull back the curtain, what will you decide to show?  Do you want to focus on the result pulling a rabbit out of a hat), or the process involved (the hours of practice required to achieve the trick)?  If people tend to de-emphasize the hard work that goes into leadership, how does this impact the popular notion of “leading by example”? 
  • Magic is useful.  As the study indicates, there are advantages to employing a little “magic.”  It is incredibly important to be perceived as having a useful vision, with the added benefit of leveraging this dynamic as a source of inspiration and motivation.  Don’t shy away from using this resource – authentically and honestly.
  • What is behind the curtain of your leadership?  As with many challenges of leadership, the first critical steps are personal.  When you symbolically “look behind your own curtain,” what is there? How do you perceive yourself, and how do you validate and refine this perception with feedback from others? How do you make the conscious choice to step out of your default style and do the uncomfortable things that leadership requires of you?  How do you determine when to employ a little magical thinking on yourself, and when to focus on the hard work that others may not see or appreciate?

The study provides an interesting point of view on narrowing one of the gaps between a leader and those who follow.  And it is helpful to learn that sometimes, a little leadership sleight of hand is a positive, productive, and necessary bit of magic.