Very few leadership attributes have as dangerous a downside as charisma. 

This is largely true because the outward signs of good charisma and bad charisma are similar.  Here are three broad categories of dangerous charisma, and how to avoid them in your personal leadership.

1.     Leaders can become addicted to charisma

This is a variation on the adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A leader who employs too much charisma can come to rely on this ability as an end unto itself.  Picture a leader who can inspire a group, or promote a vision, or simply want to walk into a room as the center of attention, all with seemingly little effort.  The recognition, validation, and basic positive feedback generated by charisma is a heady mix – and can tempt a leader to capture this reaction first and foremost, rather than face situations that are more challenging or unpopular.  In essence, charismatic leaders can charm themselves.

Leaders can avoid this quagmire by making sure they don’t take their charismatic capabilities for granted, or treat them lightly.  Authentic leaders understand (and continually calibrate) the influence and authority they have by virtue of their position and personal attributes. 

In short, they study themselves in the context of the practice of leadership.  They learn to be better leaders over time by focusing not on what makes them compelling personally, but on what makes their organizations compelling as a whole.

2.     Organizations can become addicted to the charismatic leader

Just as leaders are susceptible to their own charisma, organizations can become addicted, too.  An overly-charismatic leader draws focus from the rest of the organization by demanding (subtly or dramatically) attention for him- or herself. When the focus shifts to the personal characteristics of the leader, accountability is diminished. The followers can become overly dependent on the leader for all manner of large and small directions and decisions.  The most extreme example of group dependency? A cult. 

A less extreme situation is often found in organizations where too many things must pass through the leader, and no one is ever quite certain what to expect as a reaction.  The enterprise loses the ability to be resilient in the face of changing realities. It’s too busy waiting for the leader to decide what to do, and believing that the leader knows best.

Leaders who want to avoid organizational dependency must ask themselves:

  • Do I spend my time empowering others to make decisions, or does my involvement force people to look to me for answers?
  • How often do I dive into details that belong to others?
  • How do my actions and attention help – or prevent – others from taking greater responsibility and accountability for their actions?

3.     Charisma grows for its own sake and forgets its purpose

This is what happens when both the leader and the organization are addicted to charisma.

Typically, organizations with big visions are led by people who display significant charisma in order to keep the vision moving forward.  In many cases, the bigger the vision, the more the organization tilts towards the “visionary,” thus increasing the risk of charismatic addiction and organizational dependency.  Young or smaller companies are especially vulnerable because they have no other center of gravity outside of the charismatic founder (or co-founders).

The challenge expands if the company grows, because followers tend to believe that the charismatic leader is responsible for any success. After all, haven’t these same followers endowed the leader with tremendous power?  The leader must supply more charisma to keep the dynamic humming; the need shifts to growing charisma, not the organization’s ability to grow itself.  (By growth, I don’t mean growth in revenue, headcount, or products, etc.  I mean growth in organizational maturity to face and respond to the challenges of the future.)

A current case study is Facebook, with several recent reports portraying the breadth of its founder-centric focus.  All-hands meeting are described as “part religious revival,” the movements of the CEO include involvement in a dizzying range of details, and the running narrative (the company mythology in- action) is that everyone feels the CEO is extraordinary because he is exceptionally “smart.” 

While most companies will not achieve the size and scale of Facebook, the example of an extreme focus on the leader is useful to every company.  If you find yourself influencing others for the wrong reasons, ask

  • How am I drawing attention to myself, and away from others?
  • What is the organization missing while it’s focusing on me?
  • If my company relies on me too much, what happens if I need a break, or become ill, or want to do something different?
  • What do I do when I don’t know what to do and have not built up others to contribute?
  • What do I do when all my old tricks of charisma or being “smart” don’t suit some future challenge?
  • What happens if my moral compass becomes shaky, or if I did not develop one before becoming the charismatic leader everyone adores?
  • If I have created this reliance on me, who will help me recognize this and change?

Charisma is a capability, not an answer.  If you are a charismatic leader, everyone knows it, and there is no need to overplay the role.  You will do well to tread lightly, and wear your charisma gently.  Have the courage to see charisma as an attribute, one of many, and strive for more graceful leadership that requires you to attend to the higher needs of the organization, and not just you. 

If you focus on leading with the greatest regard for your responsibilities and highest esteem for your followers, it is less likely that you or your organization will be undone by your own charm.