Does Charisma Trump Humility?

For obvious reasons, the quality of political leadership is currently on the national, regional and international front burner.  From Antigua and Barbuda (jointly and separately) to Dominica where PM Skerritt is being aggressively challenged by Lennox Linton to Barbados where PM Stuart has been roundly criticized as being too soft and too quiet to the good old US of A where some folks are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that Donald Trump is actually the President…

In all these cases and many others, we see a battle waging between leadership styles.  We have also seen the electorate taking sides in a manner that has produced outcomes that many find unfathomable.  The good news is that we can gain some insights from social research and said insights may just be what we need to save us from making the same or similar mistakes in the future.

Crisis Breeds Opportunity for Charismatic Leaders

We’ve all heard the cliché that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.  Well, it seems that this is much more apropos for charismatic leaders than for the rest of the world.  Why is that?  Well, it turns out that high levels of anxiety apparently make people hungry for charisma.

The distress and uncertainty which are typically present during crisis conditions, create a yearning for someone to step up and take charge and provide reassurances that they have what it takes to fix the problem. In a crisis environment, the grandiose promises of charismatic leaders along with their narcissism is more likely to find fertile soil.

The irony of it all is that the charismatic leader’s much-touted rescue mission often serves to exacerbate existing problems.  Case in point, in 2014 the electorate in Antigua and Barbuda was told that the water problems would be resolved in fourteen days and that 500 homes would be built in 500 days.  Further, if elected the new government would transform Antigua and Barbuda into “an economic powerhouse in the Caribbean”.  Almost three years later, the water situation is even worse; not a single one of the 500 homes has been completed and occupied; and the economic powerhouse is plagued by power outages, income inequality and 34% unemployment among the youth.

Is Charisma Inherently Bad?

Absolutely not!!! Like with so many other things, it’s when one takes it to the extreme that things can and do go wrong.  One such extreme involves an unholy marriage between charisma and narcissism.  Back in 2012, Psychology Today published an article which listed six sure signs of narcissism. They include:

  1. Unilateral listening or dismissing other people’s concerns and comments.
  2. It’s all about me!
  3. The rules don’t apply to me.
  4. Your concerns are really criticisms of me, and I HATE being criticized!
  5. I’m right. You’re wrong.  So when things go wrong between us, it’s always your fault.
  6. I can be quick to anger. When I get angry, it’s because of you…

According to a study published in ScienceDirect Charismatic leaders occasionally fall prey to a tendency to manipulate and take advantage of followers.  In such an environment, elements such as mutual respect and dialogue are neither welcomed nor tolerated.

In fact, when taken to the extreme, a leader’s narcissism reduces the exchange of information among team members and often negatively affects group performance. When this plays out on the political front, we may see members of the leadership team who are struck silent even though they may be experiencing cognitive dissonance.  If you have doubts about that assertion, I invite you to google “Mike Pence Silence”.  Within 54 seconds you will have almost half a million results!

So how does one distinguish between the bad charisma and the good charisma? According to an article published in the Academy of Management Review, there is a fundamental difference between personalized and socialized charisma. Socialized charisma twins the larger than life hero image with low authoritarianism and a genuine interest in the collective welfare. In contrast, personalized charisma maintains an unholy alliance with high authoritarianism and high narcissism.

What’s the Antidote? 

One sure safeguard against the dangers of personalized narcissism is humility. Now for those of you who are inclined to scoff at this and think that charismatic leader eat humble leaders for breakfast, I hasten to point out that we need to safeguard against equating humility with weakness.

A humble leader as we define him/her here readily admits mistakes, accepts and learns from criticism, is self-aware, knows that it’s not always about him/her, readily entertains different points of view and seeks contributions from others in order to overcome personal limitations.

One of the consequences of having a humble leader at the helm is the fact that others become more willing to collaborate and share important information.  When this plays out in the sphere of politics, we see a participatory democracy in action.  In fact, the previously cited article in the Academy of Management Review asserts that humility in a leader is contagious.

So what are you more likely to “catch” from the leader of your organization, company or country – narcissism or humility?



11 Comments

  • Rudie

    I always tell my grandson that when you are humble men will go to the grave for u, and not even with u

  • One of the paradoxes of leadership is that it’s not about you at all but rather about the people whom you seek to serve/lead. If we come to leadership with humility rather than ego, then those whom we serve will discern that intent, and it is they who will determine whether we should be esteemed.

    This conviction is rooted in biblical principles – “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14]

  • Julie Meeks

    Very thoughtful. The concept of socialized narcissism is visible in many leaders (Bill Clinton?) So the antidote to personalized narcissism is humility, but how to manage with the narcissist?

    • Great question, Julie. Here’s the thing, I don’t think that there’s a simple answer. Fighting a personalized narcissist only makes the situation worse. Case in point, President Trump and his open war with the media… or anybody who disagrees with him for that matter.

      So until the social scientists come up with an antidote to personalized narcissists themselves, my plan is to pray and to continue to write blogs such as this one in the hope that forewarned will translate into fore-armed.

  • Charles Walton

    HI Joan

    Love the article. I think we fall prey to these kinds of leaders because we all mistake charisma as leadership when it really is not. This happens because we all but into the concept that leaders are “born” and we fail to see we can develop as leaders.

  • Charles Walton

    Joan as you rightly said we are all looking for someone else to lead in a time of crisis because we believe that the guy who talks the loudest knows the most and we may not be good enough.
    One of the other traits of this kind of leader is that they fail to take the blame for anything and never give credit to anyone else for the achievements and this negatively affects team performance.
    Again in agreement with you that humility is not weakness, but in fact in it can be a strength. We will be well served if we sought to understand the many qualities required for great leadership and not just be taken in by the very obvious.

  • Laurie

    Well written as usual. What does it say about us though when we continue to support and defend this type of leader even after s/he shows us who they really are?

    • Well, Laurie, we all need to be the change we want to see in the world. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, those of us who know better need to do better and to engage those around us in conversations such as this.

      My blog is one way in which I hope to stimulate such conversations. Please feel free to share with your network and to follow up with a conversation…

  • […] most recent blog explored the relative merit of charismatic and humble leaders.  After reading the blog, one of our […]

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