Great leaders are often described as having a certain magnetism. But according to new research, that special something could have less to do with charisma than with a tendency to obscure the way they get things done.
In the study, "Managerial Mystique: Magical Thinking in Judgments of Managers' Vision, Charisma, and Magnetism," researchers found that when people aren't aware of the means by which a leader's success is achieved, they tend to view that person as charismatic and visionary. It's similar to the way a magician wows onlookers by obscuring the workings behind his tricks, says Maia Young, an associate professor of human resources and organizational behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles. Young co-authored the study with Michael W. Morris and Vicki M. Scherwin, two business professors from other universities. "If you ask people if they believe in magical powers, very few of them would say yes," she explains, "but they make subconscious decisions that reflect a different answer."
Participants were surveyed online in three stages. First, they read a description of Apple chief Steve Jobs and rated him on traits such as "gifted" or "has a way of making things happen." The results showed that the higher they rated him for these traits that conveyed a "magical aura," the higher they rated his ability for tasks such as forecasting economic trends and setting business strategy.
Next, participants rated two fictional employees, and, in the end, judged an employee who "had a way of making things happen" to be more visionary and talented than the employee described as a "hard worker." In the final experiment, participants showed they were more physically drawn to visionaries, even preferring a congratulatory hug from a fictional "visionary" CEO to one from a "hardworking" boss.
The findings seem to suggest that leaders should keep the nitty-gritty details of their jobs under wraps. However, Young cautions that this type of impression management could have negative effects if not handled carefully. For example, if a manager spent his or her tenure concealing the processes that helped the company grow, it might prove difficult to find a worthy successor.