Watch out for the dark side of charismatic leaders

In a recent leadership session I conducted with a number of senior executives, we talked about the importance of charisma as a way of connecting with people and getting them to hear a leader's message. Several asked whether charisma is always positive or whether there is a potential dark side that can lead people down a dangerous path.

Just search for the "dark side of charisma" and you will see pictures of Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones and other notorious leaders (even Darth Vader). In such instances, these leaders articulate a message that excites (and incites) their audience and leads them to their own destruction or to the annihilation of others.

It is important for leaders to have some level of strong communication skills. They need to share a powerful message, and those with charisma are definitely able to connect to their audiences and rally them to their side. But too much of something can potentially be problematic.

So what are the differences between an ethical charismatic leader and one who is unethical? Ethical charismatic leaders will often focus on the organization's goals and build their message on common goals. They have noble intentions and will encourage and seek divergent views and foster open, two-way communication. They will be willing to hear feedback, even if it is negative, and will accept criticism. Their focus is on building a more positive future for all, not just themselves.

On the other hand, unethical charismatic leaders will focus on their own personal goals and build their message based on themselves (even though it seems like they care about the masses of people). They will discourage and censor divergent opinions and will expect that communication should be one-way, or autocratic (top-down) communication. They will strike back like bullies when they hear criticism (using the message that they "must defend themselves against attacks"). Their need for admiration and self-absorption can be so intense that it can lead them to believe that they are infallible. Instead of painting an optimistic vision for the future, they will prey on people's fears.

Leadership experts have described the downsides when relying on leaders possessing the dark side of charisma. There are victims. These leaders may take unnecessary risks, they may deny that problems or failures even occur, and followers have the tendency to rely on the leader for everything. They have unquestioning acceptance of the leader.

Sometimes people do not even know when they are being taken in — they can just be sucked up in the frenzy. Followers assume that everything the leader says is correct. And when they finally realize that something is amiss, they don't feel comfortable questioning the leader's decisions or it becomes too dangerous for them to speak up. Over time, the company may experience poor morale, excessive turnover and lowered productivity.

How can a leader stay on the right path? Ensure that you are willing to get all types of feedback by having trusted advisors tell you the truth, being careful not to shoot the messenger if they bring you bad news. Work on humility rather than self-absorption. Continually examine your motives and work to be self-aware, even of your potential derailers.

What should a follower do if you wonder about your leader's charisma? Be less willing to accept leaders blindly and make sure to do your own research to ensure that what they tell you is accurate. Make sure they are truly competent, rather than simply ambitious and bold. Make sure they truly care about their employees and not just their bosses.

Although we don't want followers to be overly critical of every move by a leader because many leaders are truly noble in their intentions, be aware that there can be a dark side of charisma. In this way, followers may be less susceptible to the charm and seduction of those few leaders who seek to deceive them.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business with more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She writes the Career Coach column for the Washington Post.

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 27, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A dark side of charismatic leaders - CAREER COACH" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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