Strong vs. effective leadership

Nicholas Emler responds to an article in our March edition.

Leadership has for too long been grievously neglected by mainstream psychology, and it is good to see the topic now more regularly getting serious scholarly attention, so I hesitate to criticise John Antonakis’s particular effort (‘Moving psychology forward – with charisma’, March 2018). I disagree, however, that ‘we have been spinning our wheels a lot in the study of leadership’. There is now a quite substantial body of informative research, in marked contrast to the position 25 years ago (though perhaps I have been around too long that I still regard this as the relatively recent past!).

Antonakis makes useful points in his article. Thus, charisma has indeed suffered from fuzziness of definition. And the link to persuasive signalling is an interesting route to rigour in research on charisma.

But making the point that a leader judged charismatic by one audience can be seen as a dangerous demagogue by another does beg a very large question.

Bad leadership can do immense damage, far beyond the effects of even the most energetic criminal. Promoting charisma as a desirable (and trainable) quality does nothing to address this. Indeed, quite to the contrary. Archie Brown, in his excellent book The Myth of the Strong Leader (2014, Bodley Head), observes that charisma ‘is often dangerous and frequently overrated’. And the evidence that he is correct – on both points – is beginning to stack up. Boards of publicly traded companies have for some years supposed that they should appoint CEOs with charisma. The people they appoint following this dictum may deliver short-term profits, but in the longer run they create chaos and ruin.

Having charisma, being persuasive, can get you elected or appointed but does nothing to guarantee that you have either good judgement or the moral qualities successfully to meet the challenges of leadership. There’s an important distinction, now often recognised in the leadership literature, but rather neglected in Antonakis’s piece, between emergence and effectiveness. Qualities of the person associated with one are barely related to qualities associated with the other. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, among the qualities that research is beginning to identify as predictive of effectiveness is humility. Humility goes with recognising one does not have all the answers – necessarily true of anyone providing leadership to a complex enterprise – and being willing to seek and listen to advice. Hitler, Musssolini and the Reverend Jim Jones may have had charisma, but none was obviously burdened with humility (and the same looks to true of some current world leaders).

Persuasive signalling matters for the reception and impact of one’s message but surely what should matter far more is the content of the message.

Nicholas Emler, University of Surrey

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