Why Charisma Is Optional and Character Is Essential

Charisma seems to be a magical leadership word in American culture. It’s that magical thing that some people supposedly have and others don’t. If you have it you are supposed to be endowed with magical leadership abilities, opportunities, and potential. If you don’t have it you are doomed to a life of mediocrity.

I realize I might have exaggerated in the above paragraph, but I think there is some truth to how charisma is commonly viewed within the topic of leadership. People seem to think that if you are going to be an effective leader you have to have charisma.

Why Charisma Is Optional and Character Is Essential

Photo Credit: Martin Fisch

In today’s post I am going to explain why charisma is absolutely not necessary for effective leadership. In fact, I will provide research and examples of how it can actually hurt a leader. Instead of charisma being a requirement for effective leadership, I would like to show you why character and competence are essential to effective leadership.

I. Level 5 Leadership

In 2001 Jim Collins published the book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don’t (New York, Harper Collins, 2001), in which he wrote about “Level 5 Leaders.” These were the leaders of the companies that were the most productive, profitable, and continued their growth over long periods of time.

The best way I can describe what Level 5 Leaders are is to share a video from Jim Collins. See below.

(If the video does not show up in your email or RSS feed, please click here.)

A. The 2 Characteristics of Level 5 Leaders

1. Intense Personal Will

A) “The fierce resolve to do whatever needed to be done to make the company great.”

B) “Ambition first and foremost for the company and concern for its success rather than for one’s own riches and personal renown.”

C) “Determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great”

D) Words Commonly Used to Describe Level 5 Leaders:

  • willful
  • fearless
  • plow horse
  • frantically driven
  • results driven

2. Extreme Humility

A) “Self-effacing individuals.”

B) “They are incredibly ambitious-but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

C) “The good-to-great leaders didn’t talk about themselves. During interviews with the good-to-great leaders, they’d talk about the company and the contributions of other executives as long as we’d like but they would deflect discussion about their own contributions.”

D) Phrases commonly used by Level 5 leaders related to humility

  • “I hope I’m not sounding like a big shot.”
  • “If the board hadn’t picked such great successors [to the Level 5 leader], you probably wouldn’t be talking with me today.”
  • “Did I have a lot to do with it? Oh, that sounds so self-serving. I don’t think I can take much credit. We were blessed with marvelous people.”
  • “There are plenty of people in this company who could do my job better than I do.”

E) Words Commonly Used to Describe Level 5 Leaders:

  • modest
  • humble
  • quiet
  • reserved
  • shy
  • gracious
  • mild-mannered
  • self-effacing
  • understated
  • did not believe his own press clippings (Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership” in Good to Great, pp. 17-40)

3. Examples of Level 5 Leaders

A) Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly Clark (1971-1991)
Few people knew about him and he “probably would have liked it that way. A man who carried no airs of self-importance, Smith found his favorite companionship among plumbers and electricians and spent his vacations rumbling around his Wisconsin farm in the cab of a backhoe, digging holes and moving rocks. He never cultivated hero status or executive celebrity status.”

B) Troy Aikman, Quarterback of Dallas Cowboys
He was known as a quarterback with an amazing arm but rarely showed it off, a quiet man, focused on the team and winning, and he instilled confidence in other players.

B. Translated

“Charisma bypass” is how Jim Collins would describe these leaders, yet they were the most effective and best leaders in their area of expertise. 

II. How Charisma Works Against Leaders

With charismatic leaders sometimes come hurtful and damaging baggage. Here are a few reasons why.

A. They sometimes don’t listen well.

1. Charismatic leaders often want to be the life of the party.
They want to be funny, entertaining, and have the attention focused on them.

2. Charismatic leaders likely spend more time talking than listening.
No one has ever told a good listener that she is charismatic. We say people are charismatic because of what they say and how they say it.

3. Charismatic leaders think about what to say in response to someone instead of just listening.
When charismatic leaders do take time to listen to someone (whether by asking a question or someone simply sharing) they likely are thinking about what to say in response instead of actively listening to what the other person.

B. They can get lonely and often don’t make decisions that will cause them to not be liked.

Effective leaders make tough decisions even when they know those decisions will not be popular. If charismatic leaders rely on what others think about them and have a strong concern for whether or not people like them, then making an unpopular decision is something charismatic leaders avoid. Charismatic leaders avoid tough decisions because they know that those unpopular decisions will alienate them from the people they lead and want admiration from.

C. They sometimes participate in purposeless networking.

One of the positive characteristics of charismatic leaders is that they often are extroverted and enjoy being around people. As a result sometimes these charismatic leaders are good at networking, but sometimes that networking can be purposeless and ineffective. This can prevent charismatic leaders from getting necessary work done because they believe they are working by “networking.”

III. Character and Competence Are Essential. Charisma Is Optional

A. Why charisma is optional

Your leadership ability [charisma] has the potential to take you further than your character can sustain you.
Andy Stanley, “When Opportunity Knocks,” Catalyst Conference

1. Some of the most charismatic leaders of the twentieth century were also the worst of the twentieth century. Such as:

  • Hitler
  • Mao
  • Mar
  • Mussolini

2. Charisma can deceive and misrepresent results and effectiveness.

Research conducted in classroom settings has shown that when students evaluate charismatic teachers versus non-charismatic teachers the students will provide the charismatic teachers with better evaluations even if the students didn’t learn anything new.

When conducting research on students in classroom settings it has been discovered that students will often evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness not based on how well the teacher taught the lesson, but instead on how entertaining the teacher was. In other words, students who have a funny and entertaining teacher think they learned more even though they might have learned less than the students who had a non-charismatic teacher.

In their book, Effective Bible Teaching, Jim Wilhoit and Leland Ryken write:

Class members are not always the best judges of educational quality. Educational research has amassed considerable evidence to show that class members can be inordinately poor at assessing the quality of their learning when a charismatic teacher is involved. In some experiments, classes have been impressed by theatrical teachers spouting off double talk or high-sounding nonsense. Charismatic teachers can seduce students into thinking they have learned when they have only been entertained (p. 19, emphasis mine)

I realize that Ryken and Wilhoit are talking about a classroom setting and we are talking about being a leader, but I think these two areas overlap. If charismatic leaders are not getting good results it is easy for them to use their personality and people skills to shadow over their lack of results.

The idea that a charismatic leaders can hide their lack of results leads me into the next point about character and leadership.

B. Character is essential

Americans often assume that charisma—popularly understood as a commanding personality or personal presence—and leadership go hand-in-hand. . . I must emphasize that charisma is no substitute for character. Indeed, leaders who have charisma but lack character are a danger to others and often bring disaster on themselves.
Eddie Gibbs, Leadership Next, p. 128

Because charisma can misrepresent results and can be one of the strengths of leaders who actually do bad things in our world, it is very important that leaders have character.

In my personal and professional life I have found John Maxwell’s teaching on character and charisma to be extremely helpful. He calls it “Inside-Out Leadership.”

1. Inside-Out Leadership by John C. Maxwell

When you’re Better on the Inside than the Outside and when you’re Bigger on the Inside than the Outside, over time you will become Greater on the Outside.

Reverse Thesis:
When you’re Bigger on the Outside than the Inside,
Overtime you will become Less on the Outside!

Better on the Inside = Character

Bigger on the Inside = Spirit

Characteristics of Inside-Out Leaders:

  • Inside-out leaders value people more than position.
  • Inside-out leaders inspire others because they are inspired by others.
  • Inside-out leaders are secure enough to appreciate and acknowledge others.
  • Inside-out leaders do not abuse power.
  • Inside-out leaders extend grace and forgiveness to others.
  • Inside-out leaders acknowledge and apologize for their mistakes. (John Maxwell, “Inside-Out Leadership,” Maximum Impact Club, vol. 14, no. 11, pp. 1-3).

2. The 2 Essential Ingredients of Character

  • A commitment to do what is right in spite of what it might cost.
  • Acknowledgement of an absolute standard of right and wrong. (Andy Stanley, Louder Than Words, p. 31).

IV. What to do if you don’t have charisma

A. Don’t feel bad.

Just because you don’t have charisma does not mean you cannot lead effectively. The purpose of this post is to show that charisma is not a requirement for leadership and that it can actually inhibit a leader’s work. If you don’t have charisma do not let that stop you from leading projects and seeking to influence people in a positive way.

B. Don’t feel ill equipped for leadership.

If you don’t have charisma I am guessing that you have other inherent strengths and abilities. As I’ve said many times in this post: charisma is not required for leadership.

Leadership is about so much more than just doing activities. These are activities such as casting vision, motivation people, helping people have fun, etc. However, leadership is also about dealing with conflict with coworkers, coaching the people you manage to become better at what they do, leading effective meetings that move progress forward, ensuring expenses don’t exceed profits, etc.

C. Laugh and Have Fun.

It is important to laugh and have fun. This is something that might have to be intentional. As I shared earlier in the post, charismatic leaders often do networking even if it is not productive because it is fun for them. As someone who is not charismatic you are going to need to schedule time and events for fun. Make this a priority and don’t let it get shoved to the side. If you are someone who is not charismatic you might not laugh enough at work.

Be sure to have fun with the work you do and let the people you lead know that you are having fun. Laugh and smile often.

E. Focus on the long-term results of your program.

  1. “Volunteer managers think ‘in the long run’ terms. We build teams for long-term help, not just for today’s assignment. Our hard work up front work is meant to retain satisfied volunteers. Because we can’t just hire a replacement for a volunteer who quits, we make sure that our existing volunteers have what they need to succeed. We don’t ‘use’ volunteers, but rather, we support them so they remain committed to our cause” (Meridian, “Management 601”).

It is important to remember that as a leader you are responsible to get results. Focus on the long-term results of your work because that speaks loudest about you as a leader and your competence.

F. Be strategic (especially for non-charismatic leaders).

Non-charismatic leaders are often more introverted and less people oriented. As a result, non-charismatic leaders need to be strategic about having fun, socializing with coworkers, developing relationships, and discussing the positive results of their work.

G. Show you are human.

The people you lead need to know that you are a human being and not always stiff and focused on results. Remember to laugh, be personable, and be friendly.

H. Realize there are “bonuses” to being an uncharismatic leader.

Senior pastor, Ron Edmondson, shares the bonuses that introverted leaders have over extroverted leaders. Introverted leaders:

  1. think first and speak later
  2. are less likely to struggle with the loneliness of leadership
  3. create intentional moments
  4. are more likely to concentrate on the big picture
  5. network intentionally
  6. listen well (Ron Edmondson, “7 Reasons Introversion Works Well for Me as a Senior Leader”)

V. What to do if you do have charisma

Maybe you are a person who has charisma and wants to be an effective leader. Here are some things you should do as a charismatic leader.

A. Follow through on promises and commitments.

Charismatic leaders can use their personality and people skills to “smooth over” the wrong things they have done. One common thing that many of us do (whether or not you are charismatic leader) is fail to follow through on promises and commitments. Charismatic leaders have tremendous potential to establish trust and confidence in the people they lead by simply following through on their promises and commitments.

B. Show sincerity and genuine interest in others. 

People (especially the Millennial generation) want to be led by people who are sincere and genuine. You, as a charismatic leader, must show sincerity. When you say something nice make sure you mean what you say. Don’t just say a kind word because you hope the person will remember that the next time you ask him or her to do something.

Also, be interested in others aside from just what they can do for work. Show a genuine interest in the people you lead. Try to get to know what they like, where they live, how big their families are, what their interests are, what they do outside of work, etc.

C. Convince people that they are not a “means to an end.”

No one wants to feel used. And, charismatic leaders with an agenda and strong personality can easily cause people to feel used. Instead, charismatic leaders must show a genuine interest in others, value them, and convince the people that they are not simply a “means to an end.”

D. Ask questions.

A great way for a charismatic leader to show people they are valued and appreciated is to simply ask questions. Ask questions about:

  1. people’s thoughts and opinions
  2. people’s outside work interests and passion
  3. people’s family

E. Apologize when necessary (and mean it).

Everyone messes up from time to time and needs to apologize. You as a charismatic leader can cultivate a culture of trust and confidence if you apologize and ask for forgiveness of the people you have hurt. Do this privately and, if appropriate, publicly. And, most of all, be genuine and show people that you are sincere in your words.

VI. Your role as a leader is to be effective; not just charismatic

I believe it is important to remember that your role as a leader is to be effective. You are hired and paid to get results. Therefore, be direct in what you expect from the people you lead, cultivate a good working environment, and work towards the goals you have established for your department and organization.

Question: Do you believe charisma is essential or option for leadership? Why or why not?

Charisma has absolutely nothing to do with leadership. If you possess it, it’s merely a bonus and, if you allow it, it can actually get you into a lot of trouble. Real leadership is built on character and competence.
Rick Warren, “Charisma Is Optional, Character and Competence Are Essential

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at