York study finds charisma can be a liability for leaders

Charisma can actually hurt a team leader’s performance and have a destructive effect on the team itself, a recent study by two York University researchers from the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies has shown.

Igor Kotlyar, a part-time instructor in the School of Administrative Studies, and Len Karakowsky, a professor of human resources management, also in the School of Administrative Studies, examined leadership styles to learn which are most effective at generating productive conflict among team members while minimizing negative interpersonal conflict.

Right: A less flamoyant, no-frills leader can be more successful at engaging executive teams in brainstorming

"The prevailing belief is that charismatic leaders always bring out the best in their followers and help teams perform beyond expectations," said Kotlyar, lead author of the study. "What we discovered, in contrast, is that a less flamboyant, no-frills leader can be more successful at engaging executive teams in brainstorming while keeping emotions and ego in check."

These observations were reported in their aptly-named paper, "Falling over Ourselves to Follow the Leader", published recently by the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. It builds on the results of an earlier study by Kotlyar and Karakowsky, published in Small Group Research which details how groups of business students generated solutions for a variety of strategic business challenges. Teams whose leaders exhibited charismatic qualities tended to experience the highest levels of dysfunctional conflict and often produced weaker decisions.

One of the great strengths of charismatic leaders – or transformational leaders as they are known in leadership and organizational research – is that they are good at promoting the type of constructive debate that can lead to strong decisions by management teams. However, they are able to do this by appealing to team members’ self-concept, and this can be a double-edged sword, according to Kotlyar and Karakowsky.

"When a charismatic leader appeals to a team member’s sense of self-esteem, the team member may become more aggressive in critiquing others’ ideas, more sensitive to criticism, more committed to his or her own position and less committed to the team position," said Karakowsky. "In business, we often view the charismatic leader as a knight on a white horse whose heroic efforts lead the company to success. However, our research suggests that in certain contexts that type of leader can actually impede success."

The research by Kotlyar and Karakowsky has important implications for leading high-performance executive teams because it suggests that, in many cases, the best leader will be one who does not bring emotion or charisma into the equation. Their studies offer a number of tips for team leaders to reduce the likelihood of unproductive conflict, including:

  • Before team brainstorming begins, specify acceptable and unacceptable rules of conduct upfront and identify specific inappropriate behaviours as they occur.
  • Encourage productive conflict through critiquing of the ideas and not the person.
  • If conflict gets heated, encourage group members to control their urges to attack others at a personal level.
  • Ask group members to take a breather if they feel angry and to not respond to others’ comments out of anger.
  • Use negative feedback to discourage reciprocation of aggression.

For more information on this study, visit the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies Web site.