If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?

The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place.

The problem is that we select negative charismatic leaders much more frequently than in the limited situations where the risk they represent might pay off. Despite their grandiose view of themselves, low empathy, dominant orientation toward others, and strong sense of entitlement, their charisma proves irresistible. Followers of superheroes are enthralled by their showmanship: through their sheer magnetism, narcissistic leaders transform their environments into a competitive game in which their followers also become more self-centered, giving rise to organizational narcissism, as one study shows.

 

The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place.

Humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.

For example, one study examined 105 small-to-medium-sized companies in the computer software and hardware industry in the United Studies. The findings revealed that when a humble CEO is at the helm of a firm, its top management team is more likely to collaborate and share information, making the most of the firm’s talent.

Another study showed that a leader’s humility can be contagious: when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behavior. A study of 161 teams found that employees following humble leaders were themselves more likely to admit their mistakes and limitations, share the spotlight by deflecting praise to others, and be open to new ideas, advice, and feedback.

Yet instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.

The Greek word Kharisma means “divine gift,” and charisma is the quality of extraordinary charm, magnetism, and presence that makes a person capable of inspiring others with enthusiasm and devotion. German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as “of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of it, the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Research evidence on charismatic leadership reveals that charismatic people are more likely to become endorsed as leaders because of their high energy, unconventional behavior, and heroic deeds.

While charisma is conductive to orchestrating positive large-scale transformations, there can be a “dark side” to charismatic leadership. Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo describe it this way in their seminal book: “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.” A clinical study illustrates that when charisma overlaps with narcissism, leaders tend to abuse their power and take advantage of their followers. Another study indicates that narcissistic leaders tend to present a bold vision of the future, and this makes them more charismatic in the eyes of others.

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