The Perils of Charisma Without Character in Leadership

June 13, 2024
Mike Stallard

In the annals of history and the chronicles of modern times, the rise and fall of leaders provide valuable lessons about the essential traits of effective leadership for current leaders, aspiring leaders, and the organizations that hire and promote them. One recurring theme is the disastrous consequences when charisma precedes character.

Charisma is defined as compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. In and of itself, charisma is not a bad thing. With its magnetic appeal and ability to inspire, a leader’s personal charisma can be a powerful tool. It can rally people, drive initiatives, and create a shared sense of unity and purpose. But when a leader possesses charisma without a foundation of strong moral character, watch out.

The fundamental question to be asked is this: Is the charisma being channeled for the primary benefit of the individual or for the greater good? What is the leader’s underlying motivation?

How can you tell? For starters, recognize that rhetoric can be misleading, or even manipulative, however promising it sounds. The same can be said for charm or apparent earnestness. A more reliable measure is to look to the person’s character for clues.

Charisma without Character Is Disconnecting and Fleeting

A low-character leader may achieve short-term success by dazzling followers and stakeholders with his or her charisma, but this success is often built on shaky ground. The allure can be a facade that masks underlying weaknesses. To maintain their veneer of success, such leaders frequently engage in unethical and sometimes unlawful behavior. They are often willing to lie, cheat, steal, and harm others to achieve their goals. Some will even go to extreme lengths, showing a complete disregard for human life and societal norms.

The low-character individual’s lack of integrity and moral grounding eventually leads to downfall. Implosion is not just a possibility but a high probability, as history has shown. We have seen this pattern when charisma precedes character over and over again.

High-charisma / low-character leaders create environments of fear and mistrust, where the end justifies the means, and integrity is sacrificed at the altar of personal ambition. Their words and actions may create or reinforce a culture of “us” (loyalists or an inner circle) versus “them” (non-conformists or out-groups). Stereotypically, they don’t like to have their pronouncements challenged or questioned.

Charisma that is not anchored by solid character often leads to ethical breaches and unsustainable practices. These actions might bring immediate rewards but invariably lead to long-term repercussions, including legal troubles and personal disgrace. And repercussions can extend beyond the fallen leader to those who were complicit as well as to those who were innocent victims of the reputational damage done to the organization or the organization’s collapse.

Charisma Grounded in Character Is Connecting and Enduring

In stark contrast to those who rely solely on their charisma to project success, leaders with charisma anchored by strong character and competence, exhibited by attitudes, words, and behaviors that reflect humility, love, and service, are far more likely to deliver sustainable success. These high-character individuals lead from a concern for “we” over “me” and thus the culture they foster around them is vastly different.

The effectiveness of leaders with strong character is reflected in sustainable success. Their teams or organizations are built on trust, ethical practices, and a commitment to the greater good. These leaders inspire loyalty and dedication, leading to high levels of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and long-term profitability.

If you want to become a high-character leader, or want to be able to quickly identify high-character leaders when making hiring and promotion decisions for your organization, seek the traits of humility, love, and service. Here’s what that may look like in a workplace setting.

High-character Leadership Trait #1: Humility

Humility allows leaders to recognize their own limitations and appreciate the contributions of others. It fosters a culture of learning and collaboration, where team members feel valued and motivated to contribute their best. Humble leaders are not afraid to admit mistakes, which not only humanizes them but also creates a culture where missteps or failure is seen as a learning opportunity rather than a disgrace or something to keep hidden from others.

High-character Leadership Trait #2: Love

Love, in the context of leadership, translates to genuine care and concern for the well-being of others. Individuals who lead with love prioritize the needs of their team members, customers, and community. They build trust and a sense of positive connection and belonging, creating an environment where people feel safe, respected, and inspired to achieve collective goals. Such leaders understand that their own success, as well as the overall success of the group, is intertwined with the success of those they lead, and they are committed to fostering growth and well-being.

High-character Leadership Trait #3: Service

Service is about putting others before oneself. Servant leaders focus not on personal gain, be that money, power, or status, but on empowering those around them. This could look like identifying and removing obstacles, and providing the resources needed for growth and success. They lead by example, demonstrating that true leadership is about serving others rather than being served. This approach not only enhances the leader’s credibility but also cultivates a culture of mutual respect and shared purpose.

Employing Charisma for Good

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, how is a leader employing his or her charisma? Is it to infuse hope and the encouragement needed to come together and carry on, acknowledging the current state while pointing to a brighter future, sharing information and calling for collaboration? We would expect to see this in a high-character leader. Given the same scenario, we would not be surprised to see the charisma of a low-character leader being used to infuse divisiveness by placing blame on others, dwelling on the negative, or encouraging unethical or illegal behavior.

While charisma can ignite the spark of leadership, it is character that sustains the flame. Leaders who embrace humility, love, and service create lasting, positive legacies and drive sustainable success. Conversely, those who rely on charisma alone, neglecting the development of their moral character, are destined for eventual disaster. It is imperative for aspiring leaders to prioritize character development, ensuring that their charisma serves as a complement to their ethical and principled foundation, and for organizations to hire and promote leaders with a strong foundation of character

The Bottom Line

In this day and age of abundant entertainment and ever-present social media, we might judge a leader first on the basis of charisma, then competence, and then character, without giving it any thought. Organizations seeking leaders who will guide their teams to long-term success would be wise to look first for a foundation of strong moral character and competence. Charisma is a bonus, not an essential trait for effective leadership.

About the Authors

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

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