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The Trap of the Charismatic Leader

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An important part of helping organizations find their next leader is gaining clear insight into what went wrong with the last one. In one recent case, we were trying to understand how the board of directors had come to select a CEO who had flamed out. The clue that helped us solve the mystery came when someone recalled their first meeting with the departed leader. He said, "His charisma was intoxicating."

Of course his charisma was intoxicating! That's what charisma is, and that's what charisma does. But having "a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm" (Merriam-Webster) or possessing the "trait found in individuals whose personalities are characterized by a powerful charm" (Wikipedia) does not make someone the right person for a position. We have seen leadership appointments go awry by being overly swayed by candidates with charismatic magnetism. While it is impossible and frankly wrong to ignore charisma in making people decisions, be aware of what it is and is not.

Recognize that charisma is like nectar on a flower attracting bees for pollenization. It is attractive and draws you in, but all the same, it is a personal attribute, just like height, eye color, or left-handedness. Charisma can surely be a valuable trait in interpersonal situations as varied as general management, customer service, raising money from investors, public speaking, and of course sales. But it should not overwhelm having the right other qualities and experiences to fit into your organizational jigsaw.

One media company selected a charismatic head of advertising sales who was a prodigious revenue producer at another media company. She was commonly described as someone who "lights up a room when she walks in." A very compelling candidate. The problem was that whereas this trait was a key ingredient to her personal commercial success, it had nothing to do with critical parts of the job, which were more about strategic, operational, financial and people leadership. Her charisma did not help her develop a sales strategy for the organization, develop pricing policies, or select other people for key positions. She ended up being conflict averse and poor in giving performance reviews. In less than a year the best salespeople had left the company, and those who remained were not a happy lot. In the end, she turned out to be the wrong choice for that role, and the mistake could be traced directly back to making the hiring decision based on her compelling charisma.

James M. Citrin co-chairs the North American Board & CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart and is the author of You Need a Leader--Now What? How to Choose the Best Person for Your Organization, now available from Crown Business