On charisma: What else?

John Antonakis responds.

In a letter to The Psychologist in April, Nicholas Emler (henceforth NE) was critical of my article ‘Moving psychology forward – with charisma’ (March 2018). Unfortunately, his points followed typical straw-man arguments or resorted to fallacies of omission.

We do not know much about charisma because previous definitions were hazy, tautological or irrefutable, and because operationalisations of charisma and the use of perceptual measures and non-causal designs led to confounded and spurious findings. I provided readers with a source to back up my claims, a chapter in The Nature of Leadership (2017, Sage) wherein I summarise the state of the field; I co-authored an article in the Annual Review series on the topic too, cited in my chapter. Yet, NE suggests that there is a ‘substantial body of informative research’, presumably on studying charisma rigorously. His sources? Popular books claiming charisma is ‘overrated’ and ipse dixit arguments suggesting that companies appointing charismatic leaders do badly.

NE stated that although charisma can help one emerge as a leader, having charisma does not guarantee one will be effective – NE claims I ‘neglected’ to distinguish between leader ‘emergence and effectiveness’. In fact, I expressly noted in my article that ‘it is hard to understand why many believe that some kinds of leadership styles are always effective; it’s just not true!’ I have written much on emergence, like showing that facial appearance can get one elected, which cannot be equated to effectiveness (Antonakis & Dalgas, 2009); I have even written a theory on how the path to emergence and effectiveness depends on different traits and skills (Antonakis, 2011).

NE states that leader humility matters much for effectiveness outcomes. His implicit argument here? I suppose that we should be studying humility and not charisma, or that charismatic leaders cannot be humble. At this point, there is no causally identified empirical study showing that charismatic leaders are not humble; also, that I do not discuss humility does not invalidate what arguments I made on charisma. There are times when charisma matters – for example, it helps solve coordination problems in teams; it can even make followers less selfish!

I hope that readers take NE’s critique with a few handfuls of salt.

Professor John Antonakis
University of Lausanne

Antonakis, J. (2011). Predictors of leadership: The usual suspects and the suspect traits. In A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint et al. (Eds.) Sage handbook of leadership (pp.269–285). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Antonakis, J. & Dalgas, O. (2009). Predicting elections: Child’s play! Science, 323(5918), 1183.

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