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The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership

Updated December 13, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Our article on charismatic leadership focuses mostly on the good things about charisma, and now it is time to introduce the dark side of charismatic leadership. It is essential to mention that things could take an ugly turn regarding charismatic leaders. Charisma could be a slippery slope with a very dark side on some occasions.

Let us start by recapping what charismatic leadership is:

Charismatic leadership is when a leader uses charismatic qualities to inspire others. Charismatic leadership can be very inspirational and motivational, leading to unity and engagement. Charismatic leadership risks becoming an autocratic one-man show. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is an example of a charismatic leader.

Charismatic leadership is often intertwined with the leader’s personality, making succession planning difficult, and can lead to a cult-like situation if gone too far. Truly charismatic people can be magnetic and influential and can talk people into doing great as well as despicable things. Where does the line between influencing and pure manipulation go? This can be a thin line sometimes, especially if the charismatic leader is egoistic or even narcissistic or sociopathic. TEST.

Essentially, the positive traits of a charismatic leader could be used in a very negative way, just as they can be used in a good way. With strong charismatic leaders, who are generally strong in relationship-oriented leadership, the followers tend to want to emulate and raise the leader to an abnormal level. The leader can almost become prophet-like. The leader can then lose all proportion and believe that he or she is above anything else, including other people, laws, and basic ethics. This, in turn, can lead to some evil deeds and, in the worst case, involves major parts of the followers as well.

As the charismatic leader starts to get more and more big-headed, he or she will stop accepting being questioned. After showing this behavior, followers that kept the leader anchored will stop pushing back and challenging the reason in things. Transparency and feedback will reduce, and the followers will become an agreeable heard. Fewer and fewer will say no, and more and more will say yes, louder and louder – all incentivized by the leader’s charisma and the situational aspects of the following. The leader is changing and influencing the organizational culture essentially.

When the movement or organization has become a strict “one-man show”, the initiative will start to die – no one can come up with a good idea or suggest a change except for the great leader him or herself. As the circus continues, the followers will soon find that the movement that started with them and a leader has slowly turned into something else – something completely fixated on the leader. This means the followers will stop believing and stop contributing or even abandon the group.

At several points in this chain of events, a leader with dark behaviors or illicit motives can put some very bad things into motion. Charles Manson is an example of that.

Charles Manson led a cult in California, USA, during the late ’60s. He led his followers, known as “The Family” down a criminal path with several people being killed as a result. Manson hoped that this would set off a racial war since fake clues pointing at the Black Panthers had been left at the crime scene. Charles Manson was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes in 1971.
Allegedly, Charles Manson read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It is a great book and contains a lot of information on how to influence others. Just use it in a good way, and not as Manson did.

Although I am not suggesting that you would become the next Charles Manson, I do want to underline that there is a risk of “losing yourself’ with charismatic leadership if you end up being on a power trip. Look also at other leaders and see if they are getting caught up in their own charisma. This normally works well until there are any real challenges since the problems can then collide with the leader’s personality, which will make it more difficult to overcome those challenges, for sure.

Further Reading

I suggest you read our article on charismatic leadership, but that you also contrast this style by reading servant leadership vs. charismatic leadership and the more healthy style of visionary leadership, which is also compared here: visionary vs charismatic leadership.

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