As the contest over who will become the UK’s next Prime Minister heads into its final phase, one theme has emerged from a flurry of recent think-pieces on the matter: a deep wariness of charisma. While some pundits have endeavoured to size up the personal pizazz of the various candidates – now whittled down to two – others have reacted with suspicion to that particular focus of the debate.
In a 17 June piece for online journal Unherd,  Elizabeth Oldfield – director of religious think tank Theos – writes: “Charisma is one of those slippery concepts: we know it when we see it, or more accurately when we feel it. But should we trust it? Some argue – and research indicates – that it may be something to be wary of, as it hides a lack of substance, capability and character.”
In Oldfield’s view, the popular understanding of charisma as a byword for surface-level flash is a misconception. “The word charisma,” she explains, “comes from the Greek for the gift of grace or favour. Truly charismatic leaders give off a sense of having received something beyond themselves and an ability to communicate and share this across difference.
“Whether it’s grace, power or purpose, true charisma isn’t just an appealing individual with whom we’d like to have a beer … It isn’t about Hollywood gloss, or sex-appeal, or extraversion. It can’t be manufactured. It’s first about communication, and the ability to connect with people not like yourself.”
An equally fascinating 20 June column at Personnel Today  examines whether the current trend for charismatic, shoot-from-the-hip-style political figures is exerting a damaging influence upon organisational leadership. Writer Adam McCulloch cites the recent CIPD report Rotten Apples, Bad Barrels and Sticky Situations,  which argues that “there is now a concerted attempt to normalise, embed and enforce higher standards of ethics in business”, and concludes that “moral leadership and [an] ethical climate and social norms enhance ethical behaviour”. With that in mind, McCulloch asks: “Could it be … that our notions of leadership – where we are prepared to tolerate braggarts, narcissists and charlatans for the sake of charisma – is outmoded?”
Is our emphasis on charisma in leadership self-defeating, or even dangerous? Do charismatic leaders always come with undesirable baggage that has to be ‘priced in’? And is charisma as most hiring managers understand it a skin-deep attribute rarely backed up by substance?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Charisma won’t go away. It’s like the notion of heroic leadership: there’s something about it that we’re drawn to. Anthropologists have noted that, for thousands of years, we’ve identified with high status, or individuals who seem to be fortunate or favoured in some way. Good looks, charm and affability – which is particularly key – help people feel reassured, and individuals with those agreeable characteristics have an instant edge in the sense that they are more likely to be trusted.
“That said, while some people find charm quite seductive, it will come across to others as cloying and unattractive. So when we’re looking at charisma as a trait that hinges upon the individual’s ability to influence a relationship in a specific moment, it can’t be viewed as an indicator of effective leadership in the round. If we turn to what we at the Institute have identified as the five Dimensions of Leadership – and, within them, the 49 different components – it’s no coincidence that charisma is on neither list. Instead, we cite authenticity, trustworthiness and integrity as positive characteristics.”
Cooper points out: “At a time when the complexities of leading modern organisations outstrip those that leaders faced in any previous era, there’s so much more to the challenge than a collection of personal attributes – however winning they may be on a momentary basis. Indeed, I would argue that goes for vision, too. As I say so often at conferences, it’s about delivering, and owning, results. It’s about being able to work collaboratively.”
She notes: “If you’re affable, a good communicator and genuinely seem to care, with a knack for building a rapport with people, then you’re at an advantage. But unless all of that is backed up by abilities to collaborate and deliver – which are essential for dealing with the complexities of modern organisations – then charisma is empty. You must be surrounded by people who can help you deliver results. That requires you to build, manage and nurture relationships in the long term, which takes a much broader skillset to achieve.”
Cooper adds: “Crucially, that skillset can be developed. Revering charisma is a bit like saying there’s a leadership gene, and you’ve either got it or you haven’t. But we know that’s not true. We know that you can work on your abilities to empathise, listen and communicate. All of those things contribute to leadership. It’s about delivering results with integrity – and that means a lot more than being someone who everyone wants to talk to when you walk in the room.”