In a Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times there was a fascinating article on dealing with the 

 “Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership.”

You who follow me on this blog site know that I am a strong proponent and advocate for healthy leaders building healthy organizations and local churches. I do what I can to inform and educate leaders about what can cause their leadership and organizations to become dysfunctional, unhealthy and unsafe.

In this Los Angeles Times article by Joyce E. A. Russell, who is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, with more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management and negotiations, she has some excellent observations that I want to pass along to all of you.

Russell shares that most leaders know about the importance of charisma in connecting with people and getting them to hear the leader’s message. She also noted that charismatic leadership can be either positive or negative. Negative charismatic leadership can actually lead followers to their own destruction and that of the group, organization or church they lead.

Here are some of her thoughts from the article, which I have paraphrased and adapted a bit:

Helpful and ethical charismatic leaders will:

  • Often focus on the organization’s goals and build their message on common goals.
  • Have noble intentions and will encourage and seek divergent views and foster open, two-way communication.
  • Be willing to hear feedback, even if it is negative, and will accept criticism. Their focus is on building a more positive future for all, not just themselves.

Hurtful and unethical charismatic leaders will:

  • Focus on their own personal goals and build their message based on themselves (even though it seems like they care about the masses of people).
  • Discourage and censor divergent opinions and will expect that communication should be one-way, or autocratic (top-down), communication.
  • Strike back like bullies when they hear criticism (using the message that they “must defend themselves against attacks.”)
  • Have an inordinate need for admiration and attention and be so self-absorbed that it can lead them to believe that they are infallible. Instead of painting an optimistic vision for the future, they will prey on people’s fears and insecurities.

How can you as a leader stay on the right path?

  • Ensure that you are willing to get all types of feedback by having trusted advisors tell you the truth, being careful not to shoot the messenger if they bring you bad news.
  • Work on humility rather than self-absorption.
  • Continually examine your motives and work to be self-aware of your potential derailers.

What can you as a follower do to protect yourself and your organization?

  • Be less willing to accept leaders blindly and make sure you do your own research to ensure that what they tell you is honest and in the best interests of the organization and not just simply in the best interest of the leader.
  • Make sure they truly care about their employees and the organization and not just themselves.

Although we don’t want followers to be overly critical of every move by a leader because many leaders are truly noble in their intentions, be aware that there can be a dark side of charisma. In this way, followers may be less susceptible to the charm and seduction of those few leaders who seek to deceive them.