The Charisma Myth

Updated: Jun 25

I’ve met many charismatic people over more than 30 years as a consultant and executive.


Some have been leaders. But not all. And yet, leadership is so often conflated with charisma, I’d say it’s one of its greatest myths.



In my last post, I wrote about my college buddy Tim, who possessed almost superhuman people skills. To know the guy was to love him. When you talked to Tim, he was one of those rare people who made you feel like you were the only person in the room.


But that’s not why he was a leader. Tim was a leader because he was able to get people to join him to accomplish goals together. Did his natural magnetism hurt? Of course not. But on its own, without the skills to harness it to deliver results, it’s just likeability, not leadership.


One time, I worked with a leader who was a former star college athlete. He had great stories and people always flocked to him. He was also highly influential, his opinions always heard and often followed. Sounds like a leader, right? Not so fast. Those same people who either reported to him directly or indirectly also described him as uncaring and disconnected. They didn't feel inspired or engaged working for him.


On the flip side, I’ve met people who weren’t particularly magnetic but who were leaders because they could inspire people to move with them towards a defined goal. They were able to overcome what we might call their charisma deficit to get results.


What Really Matters

I’m talking about charisma because it is very risky to confuse it with leadership. Too often, people with big personalities end up in leadership positions but lack the skills to actually, you know, lead. Or, even worse, people DO follow them, but in the wrong direction.


I worked with a charming senior executive at a global beverage company who self-described as "often wrong, never confused!" This was apt. He was always clear about where he wanted to drive his team, even if it was to the detriment of his business segment. He had a tough time listening to others or challenging his thinking. And, as I wrote in my last post, the ability to grow and change is essential to leading.


The bosses I mentioned above were both missing a foundational element in the recipe for success: the ability to engage your team in the journey. And that is only possible in a values-based environment.



All About Engagement

Values are the key to creating environments that fully engage and inspire people because they feel deeply connected to something bigger than themselves. Values are key to this engagement because they provide moral and practical guidance on what matters, and how to act. Values nurture trust and meaning.


As a leader, you are responsible both for what gets done (results) and how they are accomplished. That’s where values come into play, setting the standards of behaviour for reaching goals. In a values-based environment, results are achieved with, not at the expense of others. Your team members feel valued for who they are, and are empowered to contribute their best. In a values-based environment, people feel respected.


This starts at the top, but it’s a two-way street. You can’t impose or mandate values. To create truly engaging environments, people have to trust and respect their leaders.


The Leadership Trifecta

Leadership training and theory often presents a series of management functions, things like delegating, planning or hiring. Those skills are important, sure, but great leadership requires going far beyond them.


It requires that leaders play three critical roles, all wrapped around a core of character. Those roles? Learner. Teacher. Steward.


As a learner, you must be open to a continuous journey of self-reflection and self-improvement, constantly challenging your thinking. As a teacher, you must educate your team through the examples you set, the decisions you make, and the stories you share. As a steward of the values, you show by your words and deeds which behaviours are in-bounds–and which are out. You set the parameters and are responsible for nurturing, growing and perpetuating them. Setting the right example is paramount.


You can have all the charisma in the world, but without a bedrock of character and a values-based environment, you’ll never be able to connect with and motivate people to get them psychologically engaged. You’ll never truly lead them to contribute their best every day.


In my next piece, I’ll dig deeper into your role as steward of your organization’s values and explore how this relates to performance. Meanwhile, I want to hear from you. What values do you seek to embody for your team? How have you struggled or succeeded in being a learner, teacher and steward of them?


Let me know in the comments or send me an email.


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