Do you need charisma to be a good boss?

As the UK announced a snap election this summer, the inevitable analysis of the party leaders commenced.  One of the common accusations labeled at Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is that he lacks charisma.  It got me thinking just how important that is as a leadership quality.

A recent study from Michigan State University suggests not very.  The study found that leaders were able to effectively motivate their team when they were both supportive and able to set clear expectations.  Charisma was not found to be that important.

“Effective leadership may be based in part on leader’s ability to recognize when a particular mental state is needed in their employees and to adapt their own mental state and their behaviors to elicit that mindset,” the authors say. “Part of the story here is that you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to be an effective leader. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing.”

Charismatic leadership

Across a number of experiments, the research discovered that the key to transformational change was an innovative mindset, with more conservative peers tending to manage by exception and focus more on preventing mistakes.

“We found that the motivations of managers are contagious and ‘trickle down’ to their subordinates,” the authors say. “Thus, if managers are unhappy with how their people are approaching work tasks, the managers might actually be the ones responsible for eliciting their motivation in the first place. Managers can modify their leadership behavior to trigger the appropriate motivation orientation in their employees to fit the situation.”

Suffice to say, this kind of charismatic approach isn’t something that many managers can pull off, and certainly not all the time.  For such managers, a more transactional approach may work well.  It’s something the authors call ‘contingent reward behavior’, and aims to apply a bit of both innovative and preventative approaches, whereby both positive and negative reinforcement is used depending on performance.

The flipside of charisma

Of course, charismatic leadership can also bring with it a number of significant risks.  A study conducted in 2014 finding that confidence can be a particular flaw in a leader.  It found that such charismatic and confident leadership can result in feedback being drowned out and ignored, thus preventing the leader, and their organization, from learning.

This was followed by a second study published a few years later by researchers at the University of Cambridge, which found that charismatic leaders can have an overbearing presence on their organizations.

The study found that a charismatic leader can cause their followers to suppress their emotions, which reduces job satisfaction and the potential for collaboration.  As such, ‘awestruck’ followers seldom benefit the organization in the long-term.

The study, which tracked several hundred participants from Germany and Switzerland, looked specifically at how followers regulate their emotions when working under a charismatic leader.

“Emotion suppression is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes,” the authors say. “The problem is that for emotions to be suppressed, our brain needs to allocate resources to self-regulation processes that allow us to appear calm and collected on the outside when on the inside we are emotionally stimulated.”

The authors reveal that the negative effects of charismatic leadership can be buffered by individualized support, such as mentoring and coaching.

The combination of a charismatic style and a supportive style is therefore the ideal mix, as they can unite people with a charismatic message, but also solicit their advice and input.

“While charisma can help leaders establish power and exert influence, it may be intimidating to those who look up to them for guidance and inspiration,” the authors conclude. “To leverage the full potential of their followers, leaders need to balance charismatic appeal with the consideration of each follower’s individual needs. And for those who find themselves awestruck by the charisma of their leader, remember that even the most charismatic person is only human.”

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