Character is foundational to great leadership. No amount of education, experience, persuasiveness, charm, or results can make up for a leader's lack of character strength. Now and then, you hear about a leader failing big due to a lack of character. Recently this principle was brought into sharp focus for me. Kelly and I took a road trip across the country and listened to an investigative podcast. It was about the rise and fall of a large, rapidly growing multi-million dollar non-profit organization. In six weeks, it went from being the third most prominent organization in its segment with $31MM in assets to not existing. Like me, you might wonder how this could happen. At the heart of this question is an explanation of why character trumps charisma.
The Pros and Cons of Charismatic Leadership
Charismatic leaders can bring about tremendous positive change and unleash destruction on an organization. When talking about leadership and charismatic leaders, often Martin Luther King, Jr. and Churchill are brought up as examples of having had a positive impact on the world. If the conversation goes on long enough, examples of leaders and events like the murder of millions of people by Stalin and Hitler are used as somber reminders of the potential dark side of charismatic leaders.
“Charisma can make a person stand out for a moment, but character sets a person apart for a lifetime.” – John C. Maxwell
The charisma of charismatic leaders doesn't come from a place of positional power but from the perceptions followers hold of the leader. Charismatic leadership creates immense inspiration and dedication within followers to give extra effort.
Charismatic leadership is influence applied to a follower's emotional involvement and commitment. Charismatic leaders tend to emerge from difficult times, offering solutions and hope. Their early successes, combined with a strong sense of self-confidence, assertiveness, and ambition, create the perception of extraordinary in the eyes of their followers.
Charismatic leaders also tend to be polarizing, creating either loyal followers or enemies. The strong sense of awe among followers tends to limit new ideas and critical feedback given to the leader. Charismatic leaders tend to take all the credit for success and blame others when things go wrong, alienating those needed to help. This all eyes on me approach creates enemies when the leader lacks a moral compass or strays too far from cultural norms.
Charismatic leaders are skilled communicators and able to connect with followers on a deep, emotional level. Here is a speech from Winston Churchill, best known for being the prime minister of England during World War ll.
What is character?
Often, character gets taken for granted and is considered hard to define and measure. Although, good leadership habits involve a combination of competence, commitment to challenging work, and character.
Character is commonly described as a unique combination of personal traits, beliefs, and habits that motivate and guide how you relate to others.
Having character strength is doing the right thing, for the right motives, and with the right feelings. Often, decisions between right and wrong are reactions made without contemplation because they come from our values, worldview, and past experiences.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perception of what is the right thing is shaped by our history, even as children. Our family, friends, religious leaders, and the community where we live reinforce our morality.
Universal leadership character principles include:
Integrity – Being honest, acting consistently with principles, standing up for what is right, and keeping promises.
Responsibility – Owning personal decisions, admitting mistakes, and showing concern for the common good.
Forgiveness – Letting go of self and others' mistakes, focused on what is right versus only what is wrong.
Compassion – Empathizing with others, empowering others, actively caring for others, and committing to others' growth.
A leader's character influences both individual and organizational performance. Character determines how competencies are applied, and it shapes how decisions get implemented.
Here is a short discussion with Simon Sinek and Retired Navy Seal Commander Rich Diviney discussing the importance of character and how to measure a person's character.
Why Character Matters
Our knowledge, skills, and attributes define what we should do in a given situation, but it is our character that governs what we will do and how we respond to new situations.
In a study of executive leaders and their organizations over a two-year period, CEOs who scored high on aspects of character had an average return on assets (ROA) of 9.35%, in contrast to CEOs with low ratings who had a ROA of 1.93%.
Leadership character is shown to align the leader-follower relationship, increasing both leader and follower productivity, effectiveness, and creativity. Leadership character plays a vital role in unifying a team.
Followers will give more when they respect the leader's character. A focus on helping others is essential to providing effective strategic leadership. Also, leaders focused on group benefits over individual benefits navigate change more effectively.
Conclusion: Why Character Trumps Charisma
Charismatic leadership is powerful, creating immense inspiration and dedication within followers to go the extra mile. However, it can unleash destruction on an organization when there is an absence of moral character within the leader.
If you are curious about the podcast that inspired me to write this article, it was The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. At the root of this story was an influential and domineering leader with weak character. Leadership power was the drug that produced a domineering and influential leader that achieved great success by the numbers but, in the end, also a culture of toxicity and an organizational disaster.
Leadership character strength is doing the right thing, for the right motives, and with the right emotions. Great leaders are influential, and they take responsibility for their followers and the business. They have the courage to make personal sacrifices so others can gain.
Are you relying more on your character or charisma to lead?
Badaracco, J. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and right. Harvard Business School Press.
Kiel, F. (2015). Return on character: The real reason leaders and their companies win. Harvard Business Review Press.
Sosik, J. & Jung, D. (2018). Full range leadership development; Pathways for people, profit, and planet. Routledge.