Is it time to end our love affair with charisma?
As an unabashed cheerleader for smart and engaging communication, I want to explore whether that mysterious quality is given too much weight.
The truth is someone who is extremely charismatic and/or connects deeply with a certain group can often skate on the knowledge required to actually do the job she or he has auditioned for. That ends up being no good for anyone because ultimately, that individual will be found out, often after much damage has been done.
On the other hand, we are human beings, having evolved over the millennia to be emotional and respond in kind. There is a natural selection process involved here that influences our choice of partners in both business and life and certainly in our decisions about what leaders to support and follow.
So the question, then, is not that an over-reliance on charisma can get us into trouble (it can), but how do we manage our response to it so it doesn’t overwhelm facts or our ability to make the most informed decisions?
If you read my personal note, you saw I was recently in Nuremberg, Germany a city made infamous by Hitler and the Nazi Party and also famous by the German government and the Allies, which held the war crimes trials post-World War II. I walked in his footsteps. (If you look closely at this grainy photo, you’ll see Hitler in the foreground with his arm raised.) I then reviewed the propaganda. It was horrifying, to say the least.
In graduate school in communications, Hitler was one of the first leaders I studied. A charismatic speaker, we know he was able to inspire his followers, many of whom were average, middle-class people, to commit unspeakable acts against their fellow human beings.
(The Nazi Rallying grounds today)
Recognizing the horror of what had happened, an interesting phenomenon took hold: The country became a prime example of “anti-charisma.” I fondly recall working in Frankfurt some years ago for a big, international banking conglomerate and being struck by how “boring” the clients were. I didn’t get it at the time, though I should have. It was as if the German people had collectively decided that charisma could lead to very dark outcomes and should thus be treated with suspicion.
So back to my question about how to manage our response to charisma. First, in business, it is unlikely that charisma alone will get you the job, the deal, the recognition. There has to be some “there” there for that to happen. What it can do, however, is help you get a foot in the door.
Once that happens, it’s up to the person(s) responsible for choosing to do their homework, to thoroughly vet and research. To rely entirely on the emotional response and say, “I like her! (or him!)” is not enough. Behaving in that way is shirking a greater responsibility.
The true role of charisma then, in my opinion, is to function as a delivery vehicle for depth and knowledge. It does not stand alone.
We saw what happened in Germany and Europe when it did.