The reason we’re successful, darling? My overall charisma, of course.
Although the epigraph to this article may suggest to some that Freddy Mercury was pretty full of himself, most people would point out that he was also probably right. One of the things that set Queen apart from other rock bands was their stage presence, led by charismatic lead vocalist Freddy Mercury. For Mercury, as for other successful entertainers, charisma was that intangible “it” factor that people often say that you either have or you don’t.
If leadership charisma is learnable, what exactly do you need to learn to become a more charismatic leader?
Is leadership charisma an “it” factor too? Are charismatic leaders born with their charisma onboard, a result of excellent genetics, dumb luck, or divine intervention? Many people think so. However, current leadership research and coaching practices suggest that charisma is neither an inborn trait like blue or brown eyes nor a personality type à la Myers-Briggs. Rather, charisma is a learned set of behaviors and tactics. For example, Antonakis et al.(1) say, “Charisma is not all innate; it’s a learnable skill or, rather, a set of skills that have been practiced since antiquity.” Pogosyan(2) suggests that although some people may have an “innate ability to be more charismatic,” charisma can be taught. Pogosyan explains, “Some people have learned [charismatic] tactics through experiences and role models and use them without even realizing it. Others need more practice.” Either way, charisma is not inborn, Pogosyan says, but can be broken down into behaviors that are teachable and learnable. Finally, Mattone(3) argues that any leader can develop their charisma. According to Mattone, “You do not have to innately have great ‘people skills,’ a strong personality, or Hollywood good looks to have charisma.” In fact, charisma can be learned and developed like any other skill, Mattone says, adding, “But first, you must believe that you are capable of being charismatic and deserving of the rewards it can bring.”
So, if leadership charisma is learnable, what exactly do you need to learn to become a more charismatic leader? And what are the rewards that your charisma will bring both to you personally as a leader and to your healthcare organization? This article answers these questions. First, let’s explore what leadership charisma is in theory and what it looks like in practice.
What Is Charisma in Leadership?
In the study of leadership, charisma is a special quality of leaders whose purposes, powers, behaviors, and extraordinary determination differentiate them from others. In general, to be a charismatic leader means to possess a charming, likeable, pleasing, and colorful personality. The many and various definitions of charisma in leadership have a unifying theme: charisma is a positive and compelling quality that makes others want to be led by a person who has it.
There are many flavors of charisma and, arguably, each charismatic leader is unique.
What are the specific qualities of a charismatic leader? Lyon(4) suggests that charismatic leadership embodies three basic characteristics. He says, “It [charisma] means, Number 1, appeal. Charismatic people have an attractiveness, charm, a special kind of magnetism.” Second, charismatic leaders possess a gift, or at least seem to. Lyons says, “We think of charisma as a divine, magical, or supernatural gift and power that sets charismatic people apart from ordinary people.” What’s important here is that the divine characteristic of charisma is in people’s perceptions; it is not a fact nor is it a quality that can be quantified or measured. Third, Lyon says, “Charismatic leaders have loyal followers.” They inspire and excite an enthusiastic and loyal crowd and have an influence over a group of followers. Most importantly, Lyon stresses, “There’s something about charismatic leaders and their mission that goes above and beyond what we’re used to seeing.” Charismatic leaders, therefore, are not garden-variety leaders. There is something different about them. It may be hard to pin down precisely what that difference is. Yet, like pornography, we recognize charisma when we see it. Flora(5) suggests, “Charisma is, in fact, just short of magic. It’s a rare quality but common in figures who inspire devotion.”
There are many flavors of charisma and, arguably, each charismatic leader is unique. However, Northouse(6) says that we can see five commonalities or typical behaviors in charismatic leaders. They are:
1. Role models: Charismatic leaders walk their own talk, or at least appear to do so. They model the beliefs and values they want their followers to adopt. For example, Mahatma Gandhi was a great role model for the nonviolent civil disobedience for which he was advocating.
2. Competent: Charismatic leaders know what they are doing, or at least seem to. They demonstrate their competence to their followers not only through their words, but through their actions.
3. Good communicators who have clear goals: Charismatic leaders’ goals usually are driven by a clear ideology or moral position. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, drove his message to his followers brilliantly with a clear, consistent, and moral message and an engaging oratorical style.
4. Aspirational: Charismatic leaders show a strong desire to rise above the status quo. They communicate very high expectations for their followers and believe in their followers’ ability to meet those expectations. They ask a lot and, in turn, their followers gain confidence in their own capabilities and their ability to succeed.
5. Empathetic: Charismatic leaders understand what makes their followers tick. They correctly identify and address the motives of their followers. We can see this in John F. Kennedy’s famous quotation, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy recognized and aroused the motive of service in his followers and encouraged them to translate that motive into action.
As you can see, a charismatic leader cannot exist in a vacuum. A theme that runs through Northouse’s five behaviors of charismatic leaders is the way they engage their followers. Lyons explains, “If they [leaders] don’t get their followers engaged, excited, and motivated in a special way, then leaders may not qualify as charismatic.” Therefore, who the followers are and what they do in response to their leader is an essential ingredient in a leader’s charisma.
Another ingredient in charismatic leadership is the context. Charismatic leaders are more likely to find a place to lead effectively when the situation or the context is putting pressure or stress on their followers in some way. Lyons says, “Sometimes there is a felt need and exigence for a powerful leader to come in and show followers the way. There are some problems, some unmet needs in the followers’ lives and the charismatic leader comes along and offers a compelling solution.” Certainly, we see this charismatic leadership strategy at play in political debates and advertisements where candidates paint an alarming picture of what’s wrong and explain what they will do to fix the terrible problem looming over their constituents.
Sometimes, manipulative leaders create an urgent context for their followers where there isn’t one. They point to problems that are minor or that don’t exist. Then, they stir up their followers’ fears and biases and offer them a solution to the problem they just exaggerated or invented. That strategy, in fact, is the premise of the Broadway musical “The Music Man.” Traveling salesman Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, and says that the new pool hall in town is causing the folks there “trouble with a capital T.” He says that it will corrupt the boys in the community and lead them into a downward behavioral spiral. The solution? He organizes a boys’ band to “keep the young ones moral after school.” In reality, there is no problem with the pool hall. However, Hill stirred up that trouble so he could sell the good people of River City band instruments, instruction books, and uniforms for their children. By doing this, he earned the huge sales commission he was after all along. The stakes were relatively low for the hoodwinked citizens of River City, Iowa. However, the stakes are much higher and far less charming in real life when an evil leader uses this same tactic to whip a real or imagined problem to a frenzy and stir up hatred toward others. (Adolf Hitler comes to mind.)
Charisma in the right hands can help a leader to effect positive change that leads followers into good. However, there also is a potentially dark side to charisma that we know all too well. Throughout history, there have been infamous leaders like Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Osama bin Laden who have used their charismatic influence for their own benefit or to further hateful goals. Some have had a very destructive influence on society and on their own followers for the sake of power, greed, and personal gain. As Lyons warns, “Charisma and ethics do not come in a package.”
Not everybody who has that special spark of charisma can back it up with leadership competence.
Finally, charisma is not one and the same with leadership, and charisma alone does not make a great leader. In fact, it is not necessary to have charisma to be an effective leader. Lyons warns, “Some people turn up the volume on their charisma to cover over a lack of actual leadership skills.” For example, some leaders may light up a room and command attention, Lyons says, but then have trouble meeting simple deadlines, analyzing important data, or making sound, informed decisions. Not everybody who has that special spark of charisma can back it up with leadership competence. Unfortunately, incompetent individuals may be given too much leadership too quickly simply because they are charismatic. However, their lack of competence eventually will be exposed and they will fail, Lyons says. Antonakis et al. explain, “Leaders need technical expertise to win the trust of followers, manage operations, and set strategy; they also benefit from the ability to punish and reward.” In the end, the most effective leaders will be those who layer charismatic leadership on top of well-developed leadership skills, Antonakis et al. say.
There are many ways to be an effective leader that have nothing to do with charisma. In fact, many leaders have accomplished incredible things, and we would not describe them as charismatic. Lyons points to the example of Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots. Belichick holds numerous coaching records, including winning a record six Super Bowls as the head coach of the Patriots, and two more as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. Says Lyons of Belichick, “He’s incredibly effective at getting results. But few people would describe him as having charisma. He’s almost completely unlikeable, even among his own players.”
In short, having charisma does not guarantee that leaders are effective. It doesn’t guarantee that they are good and moral, or that they are capable. In the wrong hands, charisma can be destructive and devastating. Charismatic leadership is in the eye of the beholder. What is charismatic for one group of followers may not be charismatic for another. Also, charisma is not a precondition for successful leadership. Nevertheless, charisma can be very helpful to achieving one’s leadership goals and can give good, ethical, and capable leaders an edge. It can offer healthcare leaders many benefits.
The Benefits of Charismatic Leadership
Charismatic leaders often operate on the courage of their convictions and stand up for what they believe in. Some of the benefits of charismatic leadership include:
More engaged employees: Charismatic leaders are adept at motivating and inspiring their employees. Status(7) suggests, “Employee engagement will increase.”
Stronger teams: Charismatic leaders have inspired connections with their followers. They also foster teamwork. Western Governors University(8) suggests that they place “an emphasis on collaboration and team-oriented support to meet the needs of a project or mission.”
Leader creation: Charismatic leaders can spur up-and-coming employees to become leaders. By modeling charisma, their own charismatic behaviors can become a part of an employee’s eventual leadership style.
Higher productivity: Charismatic leaders are exceptionally skilled at gaining trust and respect. As a result, employees are more likely to adhere to the high expectations of their charismatic leaders. Status suggests, “The effects of this have a high probability of spurring increased productivity and better-quality work.”
A move toward innovation: Charismatic leaders are driven toward change and innovation. They will seek opportunities to better the organization and to improve processes.
More inspired employees: Charismatic leaders are able to inspire an element of belief. Miller(9) suggests, “Their goal is to make employees feel that their work and talents matter” and that they can do and be more than they may have thought possible. In some instance, Miller says, “They [inspired employees] can even begin to think of bigger dreams and plans that are achievable.”
A learning culture: Charismatic leaders typically focus on improvement and on growth more than on punishment. Under their leadership, mistakes usually are treated as learning opportunities. Status says, “Employees are encouraged to find another solution to problems when the original plan did not work.” Charismatic leaders typically create a setting where employees feel more comfortable taking risks and finding better solutions, Status says.
Higher loyalty and lower turnover: Employees often feel connected and loyal to a charismatic leader, more so than to the organization that employs them. According to Miller, “Employers often seek out charismatic leaders when they are struggling with high attrition rates.” Status agrees, suggesting that charismatic leaders can and often do lower employee turnover.
Developing Your Charisma: Twelve Charismatic Leadership Tactics
Charismatic leadership depends on the individual’s ability to influence, to appear to be trustworthy, and to have a “leaderlike” style in front of others. Antonakis et al. have identified 12 charismatic leadership tactics (CLTs) that they believe will have the greatest effect on leadership charisma. Their empirical study suggests that these 12 CLTs will have a larger positive impact than other leadership tactics, such as strong overall presentation skills and speech structure. Antonakis et al. also report that leaders who practiced and used these 12 CLTs saw the leadership scores that their followers gave them skyrocket by 60%. They add that in eight of the last 10 U.S. presidential races, the candidate who deployed these 12 CLTs more often won. Antonakis et al. say, “The aim [for leaders] is to use the CLTs not only in public speaking but also in everyday conversations—to be more charismatic all the time.” Antonakis et al.’s top 12 CLTs are discussed in the following sections. Let’s begin with the first nine, each of which has to do with the style leaders use when they speak.
1. Use metaphors, similes, and analogies. Charismatic leaders help their followers to understand, relate to, and remember their messages. A powerful way to do this is by using metaphors, similes, and analogies. King used metaphors masterfully. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, he likened the U.S. Constitution to “a promissory note” guaranteeing the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people, but noted that America had instead given its black citizens “a bad check,” one that had come back marked “insufficient funds.” Antonakis et al. point out that King’s banking metaphors made his message “crystal clear and easy to retain.”
2. Tell stories and anecdotes. “I’d like to share a story” are magical words that immediately grab attention. According to Hills,(10) “Stories are a universally appealing part of the human experience, which explains why every culture has them. We are drawn to stories regardless of our age, ethnicity, gender, wealth, or nationality, and we loved them in our ancient past just as much as we do now.” Pogosyan suggests that we imbue leaders with charisma if they are good storytellers, especially when their stories help us to understand something abstract or to take action that will solve a problem. She says, “We assume they [storytelling leaders] have unique abilities to see the future and know how to handle things.” Fortunately, even leaders who aren’t born raconteurs can learn how to tell a good story and employ storytelling skills in a compelling way, Hills says. (For more information on becoming a good storyteller, see my article “Telling Stories to Lead, Influence, Teach, and Inspire” in the Journal of Medical Practice Management, January-February 2021.)
3. Use contrasts. Contrasts are effective because they combine reason and passion. They can help leaders to clarify their positions by pitting them against the opposite, often to dramatic effect. For example, a healthcare leader can use contrast to motivate employees by saying, “I could ask you to take this on because it would be great for our healthcare organization. I’m asking you to take this on so we can save more lives.”
4. Ask rhetorical questions. Antonakis et al. readily admit that rhetorical questions may seem “hackneyed.” However, their research suggests that charismatic leaders use them often to encourage engagement. A good example of a rhetorical question: “So, where do you want to go from here? Will it be back to your office feeling sorry for yourself? Or do you want to show what you are capable of achieving?”
5. Use three-part lists. Using groups of three is an old persuasive trick that works extremely well, because three-part lists distill complex messages into only three key takeaways. Why three? Antonakis et al. explain, “Most people can remember three things; three is sufficient to provide proof of a pattern, and three gives an impression of completeness.” Charismatic leaders can announce their three-part lists when issuing directives. For example, they can say, “There are three things we will need to do.” Or charismatic leaders can and often do unveil a three-part strategy. For example, “First, we need to look back and see what we did right. Second, we need to see where we went wrong. And third, we need to come up with a plan that will convince the board to give us the resources to get it right the next time.”
6. Express moral conviction. Sharing what you are committed to will establish your credibility and reveal the quality of your character. This will be true even when your sentiments are negative. For example, you can motivate employees to keep going after a major screw-up by saying, “Who do you think will pay for our mistake? It is not our donors who will feel it, but the patients we serve. Apart from wasting money, this is not right. But we can do better. We must. And I have a plan.”
7. Make statements that reflect the sentiment of the group. Charismatic leaders have their finger on the pulse of the people they lead. They help their followers to align themselves both with their leader and with one another. Antonakis et al. suggest that Winston Churchill was masterful at doing this, citing his famous words:
“This is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny….There we stood, alone. The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman, and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle….Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle—a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.”
8. Set high goals. For example, on August 8, 1942, Mahatma Gandhi set the almost impossible goal of liberating India from British rule without using violence, as laid out in his famous “Quit India” speech. And on May 25, 1961, Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade. Both of these goals seemed impossible to many people at the time, but they were achieved.
9. Convey confidence that goals can be achieved. A leader’s goal may be ambitious, but their followers must believe that it is possible. Therefore, charismatic leaders emphasize not only the what and the why, but also the how.
The last three of the top 12 CLTs are nonverbal tactics that Antonakis et al. say are key to a leaders’ charisma. These may not come naturally to everyone, Antonakis et al. admit, but they can be studied and mastered. Additionally, charismatic leaders must be aware of culturally sensitive nonverbal tactics. Antonakis et al. say, “What’s perceived as too much passion in certain Asian contexts might be perceived as too muted in southern European ones. But they are nonetheless important to learn and practice because they are easier for your followers to process than the verbal CLTs, and they help you hold people’s attention by punctuating your speech.” Antonakis et al.’s three remaining top 12 CLT’s are:
10. Use voice modulation. A leader who drones in a monotone will not be perceived as charismatic. It is important, therefore, to modulate your voice to express your passion and enthusiasm. Barot(11) explains, “Voice modulation is basically how you adjust your voice while speaking. Fast or slow, high pitched or low pitched, taking the right pauses, stressing on words, etc.” Leaders who speak with a well-modulated voice will be very effective at engaging their employees. Leaders who speak without much modulation can work with voice teachers to add more liveliness to their speech. For non-native speakers of English whose voice modulation is not the same as that of a typical speaker of North American English, teachers of English to speakers of other languages can be especially helpful
11. Use strong, genuine facial expressions. A leader with a deadpan face will not seem charismatic. However, charismatic leaders do not fake their facial expressions. Cuddy et al.(12) warn, “Efforts to appear warm and trustworthy by consciously controlling your nonverbal signals can backfire: All too often, you’ll come off as wooden and inauthentic instead.” What is the right way to use your facial expressions? Cuddy et al. suggest, “Warmth is not easy to fake, of course, and a polite smile fools no one. To project warmth, you have to genuinely feel it. A natural smile, for instance, involves not only the muscles around the mouth but also those around the eyes—the crow’s feet.” Their advice? “Find some reason to feel happy wherever you may be, even if you have to resort to laughing at your predicament.” Cuddy et al. add that introverted leaders can single out one person to focus on. They suggest, “This can help you channel the sense of comfort you feel with close friends or family,” which can lead to warmer facial expressions.
12. Use positive body language. It is hard to overstate the importance of good posture in projecting authority and an intention to be taken seriously. Charismatic leaders do not slump. However, good posture does not mean the exaggerated chest-out pose known in the military as standing at attention or raising one’s chin up high. It means simply reaching your full height, using your muscles to straighten the S-curve in your spine rather than slouching. Cuddy et al. suggest, “It sounds trivial, but maximizing the physical space your body takes up makes a substantial difference in how your audience reacts to you, regardless of your height.” As well, gesturing naturally will engage your employees and make you seem more sincere. Be mindful, however, not to overdo or overstudy your gestures. Cuddy et al. suggest, “Twitching, fidgeting, or other visual static sends the signal that you’re not in control.” Charismatic leaders are calm and unruffled, punctuating what they say with natural hand gestures. In particular, Hills(13) suggests, “Gesture with your palms up, not down.” Open palms usually have a positive effect on others. Hills says, “Combined with outstretched arms, they communicate acceptance, trustworthiness, and openness.” “Palms down” gestures, on the other hand, generally convey rigidity and authority, even dominance and defiance, Hills says. As well, show your hands whenever you can. Hills explains, “Concealing your hands (for example, under a desk or table, behind your back, or in your pockets) makes it harder for people to trust you.” Therefore, don’t hide your hands when you’re trying to build rapport with your employees.
Antonakis et al. add that there are many other CLTs that leaders can use, such as creating a sense of urgency, invoking history, using repetition, talking about sacrifice, and using humor. However, the 12 CLTs described here are the ones that will have the greatest effect and that can work in almost any context.
Would you like to seem more charismatic to your employees? Antonakis et al. suggest that leaders who wish to be more charismatic can begin to incorporate the 12 CLTs they have identified and rehearse them, for example, when preparing to give a speech. They also encourage leaders to think about them before one-on-one conversations or team meetings, especially when they need to be persuasive. Antonakis et al. say, “The idea is to arm yourself with a few key CLTs that feel comfortable to you and therefore will come out spontaneously—or at least look as if they did.” The goal isn’t to employ all the tactics in every conversation, but to use a balanced combination. “With time and practice,” Antonakis et al. say, “they will start to come out on the fly” and your charisma will soar.
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Mistakes to Avoid in the Pursuit of Charisma
Becoming a more charismatic leader in your healthcare organization will provide many benefits. However, this leadership strategy also has some potential pitfalls. A trusted colleague or advisor who is familiar with your leadership style can provide you with valuable unbiased feedback. You will need that to help you to keep your efforts to be more charismatic from veering off track or backfiring. Here are the most common mistakes charismatic leaders make:
Wrong focus: Charismatic leaders can become too focused on their own personality and belief system to the detriment of what is best for their followers and their organization. As the Status website(7) warns, “Their power to influence others could drive them to become arrogant and shun humility or compassion.”
The creation of “yes men”: Charismatic leaders can turn their followers into admirers or even worshippers who accept and agree with everything they say. As a result, Status says, the ideas of a charismatic leader can go unchallenged, leading to the implementation of plans that are “less than favorable.” Charismatic leaders must be mindful that while they want to influence their followers, they also want them to follow their own minds and hearts. They must not expect or want those they lead to follow them blindly.
The organization will suffer when they leave: A good leader must not be indispensable. Unfortunately, very charismatic leaders can easily become just that—the indispensable backbone of their organizations. Their tenacity, drive, and inspiring leadership may cause their followers to depend too much on their abilities, without developing their own. Followers also may reject other leaders who attempt to take the place of charismatic leaders who leave their organizations. As a result, Status warns, a charismatic leader’s departure can leave a gaping hole that “no one has been trained to fill.” Therefore, a very important responsibility of charismatic leadership is to create and develop new leaders, ones who followers will accept and respect. Charismatic leaders also must be mindful to help every follower to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities.
A lack of clarity: With a little success under your belt, it can be tempting to rely on your charismatic abilities and forget to employ the leadership tactics that also are necessary for your success. Status urges charismatic leaders not to forget “consulting the team, looking at previous performance data, and remembering the mission and vision of the company.” These and other basic leadership skills will still be needed for you to succeed.
When we think of what can go wrong with charismatic leadership, Graham(14) urges us to remember the extreme and infamous example of Jim Jones, who famously deceived and abused his trusting followers right up until their mass suicide in 1978. Graham argues that we can easily make the connection between Jones’ charismatic leadership style and the decision of his followers to commit suicide by cyanide poisoning upon his order, resulting in the death of more than 900 men, women, and children in an isolated compound in Guyana. He says, “They [Jones’ followers] had complete faith in him, and for the most part, saw no reason to question his demands.” What is even more sobering is that Jones began his preaching career with some very noble intentions. For example, Graham says, “He promoted racial equality in his church at a time when that wasn’t widely common, and he had this vision of a peaceful utopia.” However, when narcissistic traits begin to slip through the cracks in Jones’ leadership, we can see where things got off track. Graham explains, “As Jones’ narcissism began to prevail, it’s easy to see how a leader’s self-confidence can become overwhelming. The self-absorption and need for admiration can transform their [leaders’] previous good intentions into the concern for oneself as opposed to the group.” Such a high sense of self-belief can lead some, like Jones, to feel infallible, and, in turn, they can lead their followers down a dangerous road. While the Jonestown massacre is an extreme example of what can happen when charismatic leadership goes wrong, Graham suggests it to us as a reminder that charismatic leaders bear a huge responsibility—to keep themselves from believing that they are infallible or abusing their influence and power.
Fortunately, the vast majority of charismatic leaders are nothing like Jim Jones, and they do not fall prey to these mistakes. In fact, most develop and use their charisma to improve their organizations and to better people’s lives. You can too. Just be mindful that you must never use your charisma to seem to be something that you are not or to serve your own needs above the needs of others. Remain humble, stay on course with excellent leadership skills, respect your followers, and your charisma can help you to achieve great things in your healthcare organization.