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How charismatic leaders teach by example

What's the optimal level of charisma for leaders?

6 min read


How charismatic leaders teach by example

Allie Smith/Unsplash

There has been a lot written about leadership charisma, especially the pros and pitfalls of its effects on an organization. Most research focuses on four traits that charismatic leaders tend to demonstrate:

  • The ability to set a vision and develop creative approaches to achieving it
  • A strong capacity for self-expression, and the use of this skill to engage and inspire others
  • A high degree of self-confidence
  • The willingness to explore new ideas and approaches to thorny challenges, with an openness to taking risks in order to resolve them

Each of these traits can be expressed moderately or aggressively, but studies suggest that leaders with moderate charisma are the most effective. These leaders are able to capture the attention and interest of their teams to successfully translate a vision in a way that encourages others to embrace it.

At the same time, such leaders are operationally focused and able to complete the projects that help shepherd their vision into reality, rather than bouncing around from one shiny object to another, without the discipline to follow through.

I sat in the back of a large meeting room recently and watched such a leader in action. A group of 150 managers from his company were gathered to participate in a three-day leadership development program. The CEO, whom we’ll call Randy, would be joining them. He proved to be their most effective instructor.

In preparation for his visit, the managers compiled a list of questions and issues that they wanted addressed. The business was growing quickly, and the organization was suffering from all of the typical growing pains that might be expected with rapid expansion. The staff was stretched thin, with employees typically juggling twice their normal workload, across multiple product lines, and doing so in physical space that was long ago over capacity.

Frustration was high and the managers needed advice on how to handle the current situation. They also wanted to know what to expect next.

The list was pre-submitted to Randy just an hour before he was scheduled to speak. He sat next to me and read through it while waiting to go on stage. Then he glanced up, handed the document to me and said, “I’m aware of the pain points in the organization and the fact that some of my decisions may have caused them.”

As I read the list, it was clear that the managers were seeking relief, and some clarity about the pace of change to expect going forward. Was it ever going to level out? When would additional physical space be available for their teams? How many more acquisitions were on the horizon and what were the plans for integrating these new entities into the existing business? In short, they wanted straight talk from the top.

“I’m going to address these issues, but there’s something else I’m going to talk about first,” Randy stated.

At the appointed time, he strode confidently up the center aisle of the meeting room to rousing applause from the managers. It was obvious that Randy is well-respected and admired by his employees. A few minutes into his remarks, I learned why.

Randy’s opening comments were a master class on moderate leadership charisma in action. He knew that the managers were hungry for answers, but he first wanted to set the context for a healthy dialogue with the group. Rather than dominate the room with his presence, he talked quietly. He was self-effacing, funny, curious about the managers’ perspectives and clear about his expectations of them. Randy had a teachable point of view — a perspective on the direction in which the organization is headed and the qualities that will be required of the company’s leaders in order to get there.

Before addressing any of the manager’s questions, Randy began by outlining what it meant to be a leader in their company and how much he viewed leadership as a key factor in creating the culture of organization. He shared three leadership attributes, which he described as critical to company success:

  • Authenticity: the willingness to be yourself, open, honest and approachable
  • Accountability: taking ownership of your responsibilities and, especially, your mistakes while graciously sharing credit for successes
  • Intellectual curiosity: a hunger to learn, a desire to explore diverse viewpoints and a willingness to respectfully engage in debate and discussion with others

Rather than just talking about the desired leadership qualities, Randy demonstrated them. As he fielded questions from the managers, he also asked questions. He worked to gain real insight about their day-to-day challenges.

During one point in the discussion, Randy discovered that a project that he initiated had been expanded way beyond his intentions. It was creating nearly impossible workload stress for one department and employees were at the point of burn-out.

Learning this, he uttered the four most important words spoken that day: “I didn’t know that.” Randy promised to look into the issue the very next day and remedy it.

His response and quick ownership of the issue was met with an audible sigh of relief in the room. The managers felt they’d been heard, and more importantly, that action would be taken to address their concerns. By admitting what he didn’t know, demonstrating the intellectual curiosity to learn more, and showing up with authenticity, humility and grace, Randy opened the door for the managers to engage in open dialogue with him and tell him the truth. Arrogance and hubris would never have led to that outcome.

 “I can’t run this company from the comfort of the C-suite,” Randy told me. “I have to spend time, lots of it, with the people who are at the front lines of this business. I have to share my vision with them and learn as much as I can from them about the challenges of implementing it, so that together we can make this company the best in our industry. I’m the CEO, but it takes a village to accomplish that goal.”


Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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