Leadership: Competence vs. Charisma

Posted On: November 6

I’m writing this blog from La Jolla, California, where I am currently working for one of the largest food companies in the world by delivering a workshop on “Leading in Times of Great Change“.

This morning at breakfast, I was reading an article in the Harvard Business Review discussing the difference between competence and charisma in leadership. Basically, the article said that 45% of the time, people do not choose leaders based on their competence: they choose them based on their charisma, personality, and level of self-confidence. So, after all of these years teaching key leadership characteristics like honesty, vision, integrity, collaboration, courage, communications, humility, and innovation, it turns out that the best way to be a leader is: grow six inches, become very good-looking, be overconfident, and speak loudly!

I wish I could say I was kidding about the content of the article, which was based on a massive amount of research, but I have actually witnessed working with “leaders” who were basically incompetent but highly charismatic and overly confident. However, I do not believe that someone who is simply a charismatic leader can build a sustainably successful organization and that, at the end of the day, the core competencies, attitudes, and behaviors of a real leader still focus on all of the things I mentioned above.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

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  1. Hi John –
    You totally got it right – to build a sustainable organization you need some real substance. It is probably one of the most insidious factors within companies – we are too easily swayed by charisma and don’t pay enough attention to competence. Mid-level promotions fall under the same trap

  2. Actually John I believe it. History shows this true as far back as 2000+ years ago when the Israelites, who had no king, requested that Saul be the first one. He was taller than most, dark features and resembled what they felt a king should look like (1 Samuel). Has it really changed that much today?

    Once the “party” is over, people do want substance and sincerity from a leader.

  3. Charismatic traits work well within the politically bound publicly traded business arena. Those same traits do not work well vs. competence when leading a privately held or family business institution.
    There is no tolerance for the inept when personal money is at stake. Partners and or family have there lives on the line. Every dollar and action counts.
    That said, if a leader is very competent and is also charismatic, then that’s a bonus. If that leader is professionally assessed and demonstrates the actions and behaviors of a stakeholder, then it is best to incent this type of leader with an equity position. Leaders with those skillsets should be retained.

  4. Well, that means that most of the time – 55% of the time, folks choose competence.

    However, this also has some implications for men v. women in leadership positions. If it’s still relatively easy to put someone in leadership who “looks the role” then it will take some serious effort to displace the good looking man for a woman, no matter how good looking. We’ve been imprinted from an early age to accept a handsome male visage as the proper “look” for the “role”.

    I’d like to propose a solution that it’s easier to tip the scale in the direction that it’s already tipping. Since the slight majority still favors competence over charisma, let’s find ways to emphasize competence that is gender favorable for men and women.

  5. I’ve seen this a lot in small businesses. A charismatic person quickly wins friends and influence and builds a company but fades away within one to five years because they just can’t sustain the business past that point. All charm. No real substance. So your clients catch on and your staff burns out supporting you. Yes, you can lead with just your charisma but, I believe, only for so long.

  6. Maybe I just like to play the devil’s advocate, but promoting based on charisma could be a better decision than competency in a lot of cases. Leaders have to build trust, motivate, and make tough decisions for the team. Charisma can play a large role in keeping the team functional through that process. Team members can be supremely competent at what they do but when choosing a leader, having charisma to motivate the team instead of competency to accomplish team tasks may not be such a bad thing.

  7. Having spent 30+ years in the personal services arena, I am convinced that charisma trumps competence 85+% of the time, at least initially. Most clients have no clue as to an individual’s competence. What allows charismatic leaders to succeed is that they learn to talk enough of the talk and surround themselves with others whose competence outweighs their charisma.

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