Would you hire a cult leader?


We fall for it every time. Charismatic people win us over, even though we know better. Decades of research shows us that they have a real dark side. But it’s as if we can’t resist the draw. We want to believe they are everything they say they are or seem to be. The problem is, confidence and charisma are shared not just by leaders but by narcissists and psychopaths, as well. Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and JFK were charismatic leaders – but so were Adolf Hitler and David Koresh. But even non-deviant charismatics should make us think twice before we hand them the keys to our company.

Charismatic people have an irrational power over us. We want to bask in their preternatural glow, and they need our approval and adoration. Neither one of us wants them to fall off the pedestal, so we are inclined to distort reality to keep them there. They influence us, not because they have the best ideas or are the most able, but because they are the most charming. Charm is a form of emotional manipulation; we abandon our reason under its power. The charismatic leader has amazing potential to inspire others toward a compelling vision, but that vision is not necessarily the right one (not that they’d admit that).

Some months ago, we shared Amy Cuddy’s research about power. The gist of it is that you can make yourself feel and appear more confident by adopting “power poses” for even just a few minutes. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone felt more confident? No! We actually have a crisis of over-confidence in leadership positions, not a crisis of low self-confidence. Over-confidence is the crux of the problem with charismatic leaders as well.

We are all irrationally over-confident to some extent, but when over-confidence is paired with charm and charisma, the consequences can be great. It risks a group of people confidently marching off a cliff, sure of the rightness of their actions until the bitter end. The problem is that when people appear confident, we tend to believe them, even when they produce lower results compared to people who are more talented but evidence less confidence. This is one of the reasons why jarringly incapable people manage to climb the ranks in organizations, and why we need to implement sound assessment practices. We can’t rely on intuition when it comes to determining leadership potential.

Under the thumb of over-confident, charismatic types, employees lose their voice. They either don’t bother questioning the leader because they are still blinded by his sparkle, or they don’t speak up because they know it won’t matter – she will turn a deaf ear no matter how good the idea is if it counters her own. Worse yet, they may be afraid to speak up; a charismatic leader who fears being “found out” for being all glitter and no glue can get ugly. At the very least this climate will diminish performance, but it can also seriously derail an organization.

In the future of work, we are going to be dealing with change, change, and more change. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to be wrong or change direction, people who don’t think they have all the answers. I’m not talking about the meek and milquetoast, but people with the right mix of assertiveness and humility. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Leaders need to be self-assured enough that the rest of us will trust to follow. But they also need to be open, flexible, and curious, earnestly seeking alternate ideas and perspectives. Over-confident, charismatic types are focused on themselves. They have an unrealistic appreciation of their own talents and fail to see the contributions of others, who they bring into focus just sufficiently to understand how to influence them. True leaders focus less on themselves and more on serving others and delivering something valuable to the world. It’s time to leave the cult of the charismatic leader.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” –C. S. Lewis

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