Once upon a time there was a young woman who angered a wizard. In revenge he placed a curse upon her head – giving her a large dose of Charisma. The woman headed out into the wide world and tried to work with other people to make things happen – but the people she worked with kept handing her all the responsibility for the decision-making; they hoped she was the one who knew all the answers. This was alright for simple tasks and on these occasions she did a good job of alleviating everyone’s anxiety by deciding what to do. However, she was then promoted to “Head of Tricky Decisions” and she had the humility to realise that that the last thing she needed was a bunch of people abdicating their power all around her….
We’re not used to thinking of charisma as a problem, particularly in a world of leadership development that frequently focuses on each of us as individuals. However, if you use the leader-follower dynamic as a lens, you can see how this might become an issue. The Curse of Charisma can tempt leaders into holding onto their decision making power in entirely inappropriate situations (e.g. those involving high volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity – VUCA). At worst, it may even tempt them to frame problems as simpler than they really are, so they can appear in control of the situation or save their “followers” from anxiety. These responses can in turn lure followers into abdicating their common sense and blindly following someone in the wrong direction. This dynamic can lead to a lack of responsible leadership when it’s most needed, with no collective focus brought to bear on finding the right questions, let alone some answers. Hardly the best outcome when critical and tricky situations need to be tackled.
Within the leader-follower dynamic, it’s not even clear where this pressure to stick to single-point decision making comes from; it’s certainly not always the positional leader that drives this dynamic. Groups sometimes unconsciously “hunt” for someone to save them from the ambiguity and difficulties of tricky problems and charismatic individuals can find themselves faced with groups that are determined to push them into the role of decision maker, even when it’s not particularly appropriate for the task in hand. This can be a difficult pressure to manage and requires huge courage to be humble as a leader and ask the group to face up to complex situations alongside you.
So if you are ever given the feedback that you’re charismatic, beware! You may well need to learn to challenge the groups you work with to share the responsibility of facing the VUCA world. And if you are working with someone who you think is cursed this way, make sure you don’t fall under its spell and abdicate your full engagement – you may be about to play out a game to no-one’s ultimate advantage…
Karen Jaques is a Senior Consultant at Impact UK.