Charisma vs Character

By STUART MACKENZIE 18th May 2021 Leadership

The term ‘charisma’ is free of moral value. The Obamas had it, as did Trump; we are yet to see if Biden possesses any. Bin Laden had a little apparently, and Joan of Arc was rumoured to exude it. Boris occasionally seems to have some, Blair did as well, but neither had as much as Churchill, Hitler or JFK. On stage, Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen overflow with the stuff: Annie Lennox, Aung San Suu Kyi and Oprah Winfrey all shine with it and Steve Jobs used it to build the business. These are all leaders in their field, to whom different sections of society would attribute the quality of charisma.

There is a yearning deep within the human psyche for charismatic personalities. Whether it is religious guides, celebrity entertainers, sports stars, politicians or business leaders, people have a desire to look upon and revere individuals who are imbued with this mystic quality. However there is a danger in charisma. We must ask; in this era of crisis and confusion, is charismatic leadership what we need, or is more important to have leaders who have Character?

Max Weber the esteemed sociologist, asserted that Charisma could only be understood in the relationship between people. He posited that Charisma only comes into existence when it is witnessed by a group. It is not a solitary activity. You can’t be charismatic on a desert island. Charisma is in the eye of the beholder. So while people describe charisma as something that appears to be a gift, a halo effect, a force, it would also appear to rely heavily on the level of receptiveness in the spectators, and therein lies a danger.


Derren Brown, the UK Mentalist and Illusionist, who on stage can seems mesmeric describes Charisma as a stage trick. He admits to being quite ordinary off stage but when he is ‘being charismatic’ he is very attentive to what is going on in others’ heads – and how to get them to respond in a certain way. He says that what it comes down to is an ability to make a connection, be present, listen actively and communicate powerfully. We would call that relational chemistry, and we encourage it. But Brown also works deliberately on the suggestibility of the audience.

The Queen's charisma is in part due to the theatre of her office. She is lent a cloak of charisma. One can take an ordinary person and create a sense of monarchy by ensuring a remoteness and distance, an asserted authority and an elevated throne. Charisma exists here in the power dynamic, as it sometimes does with politicians and business leaders and requires courtiers willing to pay deference.

Another area of concern is that Charismatic leadership often thrives in situations where there is uncertainty or crisis. Charismatic leaders require, and sometimes create, instability, factionalism and polarisation. They tend to inhabit the role of the hero, the saviour, the guru. The leader is seen to be sent, as if from the heavens, to point in a new direction. That can be dangerous particularly when a body of people feel themselves at threat and in need of a great man or woman to restore their fortunes. Trump in the USA spoke to the sense of loss and disgruntlement in a large section of society. Trump sowed and reaped discord and became the charismatic saviour to his followers. ‘Hero’ leaders need an unstable environment in which to work their ‘magic’ and may work to keep the environment unstable.

Another danger is the narcissism that so often attends charisma. Good leadership requires the warming intelligence of self-doubt. Charisma requires something beyond self-belief and more like self-conceit. Charismatics believe that they are superior in some way. They think they have overcome barriers or flaws in themselves or mastered the principles of the market, and so they are somehow better than, or a step above, the ordinary folk.


In our list at the start of this piece we mentioned many examples; some of those leaders not only manage their own charisma but also navigate away from the dangers outlined above. We believe that those leaders have developed Character as well as Charisma.

Character is of course a difficult concept to tie down. The main difference between the two is that while charisma deals with the external magnetism, character focuses on the inner qualities which make up an individual and draws others to those qualities.

At Maynard Leigh we are committed to promoting character in all forms of leadership and therefore we work with people on what we believe are the three core elements of character: integrity, resilience and distinctiveness.

If we take Nelson Mandela for instance, he had an integrity and a moral authority, forged through sharing the dangers and hardships of his people. He had a profound and resilient belief in the goodness of others. His was articulate, committed and sparkled with humour in an authentic and distinctive way.

During these disrupted times we believe that we need leaders who have a depth of character; we consider that Charisma is a useful by-product of being present, establishing relationship and building chemistry, but that the more impressive leaders have a depth of Character.

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