In a recent leadership session I conducted with a number of senior executives, we talked about the importance of charisma as a way of connecting with people and getting them to hear a leader’s message. Several asked whether charisma is always positive or whether there is a potential dark side that can lead people down a dangerous path. Clearly, we know this can and has happened. Just search for the “dark side of charisma” and you will see pictures of Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones and other notorious leaders (even Darth Vader). In such instances, these leaders articulate a message that excites (and incites) their audience and leads them to their own destruction or to the annihilation of others.

Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business) Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business)

It is important for leaders to have some level of strong communication skills. They need to share a powerful message, and those with charisma are definitely able to connect to their audiences and rally them to their side. But as with other things in life, too much of something can potentially be problematic.

So what are the differences between an ethical charismatic leader and one that is unethical? Ethical charismatic leaders will often focus on the organization’s goals and build their message on common goals for all. They have noble intentions and will encourage and seek divergent views and foster open, two-way communication. They will be willing to hear feedback, even if it is negative about themselves and will accept criticism from others (rather than getting overly defensive). They will share a positive vision, helping their followers see the need for change and growth. Their focus is on building a more positive future for all, not just themselves.

On the other hand, the unethical charismatic leader will focus on their own personal goals and build their message based on themselves (even though it seems like they care about the masses of people). They will discourage and censor divergent opinions and will expect that communication should be one-way, (their way) or autocratic (top-down) communication. They will not be accepting of criticism and instead will strike back like bullies when they hear criticism (using the message that they “must defend themselves against attacks”). Their need for admiration and self-absorption can be so intense that it can lead them to believe they are infallible. Instead of painting an optimistic vision for the future, they will prey on people’s fears and overly exaggerate the sense of crisis and pending doom (unless of course they are in charge). They are narcissistic leaders who can deceive and abuse their followers’ rights. Using many superlatives (never, always, worst ever, disastrous, etc.) they inflate or overstate issues so that it seems like the “sky is falling.” This makes people feel like they need to follow them in order to be safe.

Leadership experts have described the downsides when relying on leaders possessing the dark side of charisma. There are victims. These leaders may take unnecessary risks, they may deny that problems or failures even occur, and followers have the tendency to over rely on the leader for everything. They have unquestioning acceptance of the leader. In fact, sometimes people do not even know when they are being taken in — they can just be sucked up in the frenzy. Followers assume that everything the leader says is correct and they believe him/her. And when they finally realize that something is amiss or very wrong, they don’t feel comfortable questioning the leader’s decisions or voicing opposition or it becomes too dangerous for them to speak up. Over time, the company itself may experience poor morale, excessive turnover and lowered productivity.

How can a leader stay on the right path? Ensure that you are willing to get all types of feedback by having trusted advisors who you encourage to tell you the real truth, being careful not to shoot the messenger if they bring you bad news or feedback. Work on humility rather than self-absorption. Continually examine self-motives and work to be self-aware, even of your potential derailers.

What should followers do if you wonder about your leader’s charisma? Be less willing to accept them blindly, make sure to do your own research (fact-checking) to ensure that what they tell you is accurate and not overly exaggerated. Make sure they are truly competent, rather than simply ambitious and bold. Make sure they truly care about their employees and not just their bosses.

While we don’t want followers to be overly critical of every move by a leader because so many leaders are truly effective and noble in their intentions, it is important to be aware that there can be a dark side of charisma. In this way, followers may be less susceptible to the charm and seduction of those few leaders who do seek to deceive you.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.