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Charisma and Leadership Strengths

July 18 2011 - Research findings reported in the Journal of Management show that we consider some leaders to be charismatic because we attribute 'magical thinking' to them.

A deep-seated process in human cognition is involved in attributing charisma according to researchers Michael Morris, Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership,Columbia Business School; Maia Young, assistant professor of Human Resources and Organization Behavior, UCLA Anderson School of Management and Vicki Scherwin, Assistant Professor, Management and Human Resources Management, California State University, Long Beach.

They set out to understand why some executives are seen as charismatic and visionary leaders - perceptions that affect the attitudes of employees towards them. Steve Jobs is cited as a well-known example of the phenomenon whose mystique as charismatic visionary has partly come from entrancing presentations of Apple products. But, they ask, would he seem less magical if audiences knew that his apparently informal and spontaneous ten-minute pitches had ten hours of practice behind them?

The researchers conducted three different experiments:

  1. Testing whether ascriptions of mystique were associated with perceptions of the executive as a visionary able to forecast future business trends
  2. Examining if managers who performed well when obvious success-mechanisms were absent - for example extensive practice or technical skills - were more likely to be thought of as having mystique and judged to be better at tasks requiring vision rather than those depending on administrative skill
  3. The final study asked subjects to judge two executives: one who succeeded through vision and the other through hard work. When compared to the hard-working manager, the visionary executive was perceived as being more creative, curious, and charismatic

The researchers conclude that charisma can sometimes be an illusion. They acknowledge that executives can establish their reputations as transformational, charismatic leader in a number ways that are vaild, they may also 'gain the mystique of charisma by veiling how they accomplish what they do, like a stage magician.' According to Michael Morris:

"Winning in business and political endeavors comes not only from performing well, but also from managing the interpretations that others make of your performance."

Theatrics can be dangerous, limiting the transfer of skills from charismatic leaders to others and these research findings suggest that organizations should be more careful when recruiting managers on the basis of charisma.

Leadership and Assertiveness

Research led by Daniel Ames, PhD and Francis Flynn, PhD, professors at Columbia Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2007, found that being perceived as having too much or too little assertiveness may be the most common weakness in aspiring business leaders, resulting in them appearing less effective than those with an optimal mid-range level.

In a series of studies, researchers sought workers' opinions about colleagues' leadership strengths and weaknesses. The most common strengths identified included conventional traits like intelligence, self-discipline, and charisma. However, weaknesses were not simply an absence of such qualities; by far the most common response related to assertiveness.

The researchers suggest that charisma usually causes a problem only when absent but many potential leaders were considered too assertive or not assertive enough. In one study of nearly 1000 co-workers, more than half of the descriptions of weaknesses specifically referred to assertiveness, broadly equally divided between the two extremes (48 per cent too much; 52 per cent too little).

Daniel Ames said:

"Assertiveness dominated reports of leadership weaknesses, though it wasn't nearly as common in colleagues' comments about strengths. When leaders get assertiveness wrong, it's glaring and obvious, but when they get it right, it seems to disappear. We say it's like salt in a sauce: when there's too much or too little, it's hard to notice anything else, but when it's just right, you notice the other flavors. No one compliments a sauce for being perfectly salted, and it's just as unusual for a leader's perfect touch with assertiveness to attract much notice."

Researchers also considered what was driving the effects at either extreme.

Daniel Ames commented:

"Aspiring leaders who are low in assertiveness can't stand up for their interests, and they suffer by being ineffective at achieving goals and delivering results. On the other hand, people high in assertiveness are often insufferable. So, even though they may get their way, they're chocking off relationships with the people around them. As time goes by, the social costs add up and start to undermine the results. Most effective leaders push hard enough to get their way but not so hard that they can't get along."

The researchers caution that these findings do not suggest that the solution is for leaders to be consistently moderately assertive. They argue that individuals with optimal levels of assertiveness may have a broader repertoire of responses and be better able heighten and moderate their behavior as necessary. The researchers comment that the idea that "neither combative managers nor wallflowers make the best leaders may seem obvious" but found that many people are surprised by the perceptions of others.

Daniel Ames added:

"We often find that students and executives are unaware of how other people see their behavior. One reason is because people typically don't get candid feedback on things like assertiveness. Who wants to tell the overbearing boss that he or she is a jerk?"


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