Charisma gets great PR. Hugely charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson are endlessly celebrated in the media, while we've all known (and liked) the experience of being charmed by someone with that hard-to-define but powerful magnetism.
So of course up-and-coming leaders often strive to be more charismatic. Isn't that the key to inspiring people to think creatively and do their best work?
Charisma is exciting, but dull gets it done
Maybe not -- and maybe all your effort to learn to be more likeable would be better spent examining duller but more fundamental business questions. It's hardly a new idea. Peter Drucker, one of the fathers of modern management thinking, thought charisma was overrated. Those that led America to victory in World War II, such as Eisenhower, "were highly disciplined, highly competent, and deadly dull," he noted.
Some modern leaders agree that an inspirational personal persona is a terrible predictor of a person's capacity to inspire greatness. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, also feels that we tend to value charisma too highly (even among star teachers who we often expect to be highly charismatic). When asked about her first efforts at hiring by the New York Times, she replied, "I was dismal at it."
Why? "Whenever I thought someone would be great, it was sort of the opposite. You meet people and they seem nice and charismatic and they seem to have presence... maybe I was going on that, versus diving into people's past experiences and figuring out how they actually operated." Now, she looks for "the ability to influence and motivate others in a sophisticated way--but not necessarily charisma," and is having much more success.
The science of what actually inspires others
These might seem like a few, random examples, but there is evidence to back up the idea that we generally value charisma too highly, as well. Writing on HBR recently, Nick Tasler, CEO of Decision Pulse, explained research done by his company. When they examined what actually drove employees of a big corporation to change and innovate, it wasn't the fine oratorical skills or impressive personal aura of any particular colleague, it was simply seeing leaders behave in unexpected ways that played against expectations.
"Inspiration didn't come from big, hairy, audacious goals, lofty visions of the future, charismatic speeches, or demonstrations of their leaders' innate genius or passion. All that it required was an awareness of someone else's unexpected decision to cut back on an old thing in order to do a new thing. That is something every manager in every situation is capable of doing," Tasler concludes.
So next time you're wondering if you have the magnetism and self-presentation necessary to fire up your team, take a step back and ask yourself a more fundamental question first. If you made a truly good and unexpected business decision, would that work better to inspire your people than all the speechmaking and skilled relationship-building in the world?
Do you agree that we often focus too much on leaders' personal charisma?