Charismatic leaders bad for business, says psychologist


International social scientist and psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, talks about what makes good business leaders and why introverted people with less than fantastic social skills can make great leaders.

Apple founder Steve Jobs and the former heads of Air New Zealand Rob Fyfe and GE Jack Welch to many represent the pinnacle of executive leadership.

So is a dose of innate charisma and confidence essential to governance success?

For the past two decades, Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has researched and written  about charisma and confidence in all types of leaders from business to politics and the creative industries.

Former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe (front right) is credited with restoring the pride and performance of ...

Former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe (front right) is credited with restoring the pride and performance of the national airline.

But he says the idea that leaders need to be some sort of charming rock star is a myth and one that is highly detrimental to the success of any organisation.

The professor of business psychology at University College London and New York's Columbia University was in New Zealand to give a series of talks on good leadership.

What makes a good leader differed depending on factors like the industry, culture and society but there are four general qualities that make for more effective leadership, Chamorro-Premuzic says.

The first is trustworthiness and having integrity, the second is good judgement, the third is having a vision, a compelling story that persuades a team to put aside their own selfish agendas and to work for the collective good.

The fourth quality is self-awareness and it is a lack of this among some of today's leaders, as well as young people, that Chamorro-Premuzic saw as an "epidemic of overconfidence".

From his research, he has found a low correlation between confidence and competence.

"Confidence is just how good you think you are. Competence is how good you actually are."

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Generally, the more confident people were, the more likely they were to get complacent and have a distorted sense of self-awareness, he says.

Rather than place importance on charisma and confidence, it is more important for leaders to be able to make the right decisions and build an effective team, he says.

And what does a charismatic but incompetent leader look like?

"Silvio Berlusconi or the current president of Argentina [Christina Kirchner]," Chamorro-Premuzic says.

"They're probably fun to go out for a drink with but clueless when it comes to making the right decisions.

"Then you have leaders like the founder of Singapore [Lee Kuan Yew] or [German chancellor] Angela Merkel, who are low-key but make all the right decisions."

It is key to train decision makers so they can look past confidence and charisma to identify talent and competence, he says.

For those Chamorro-Premuzic labels as "charismatic narcissists", the best solution is to give them feedback on their actual abilities and help them increase their self-awareness.

Whether they take the advice onboard would be up to them.

"The most effective leaders start working on self-awareness very early on. They get profiled early on and they work with a coach early on. They have the ability to connect their performance to these different elements of personality," he says.


While the nation celebrated the All Blacks' thrashing of the Wallabies on Saturday, this reporter was wondering: Did I have a good memory? Did my work deserve more recognition? Did I have an opinion about the secrets of the universe?

In normal circumstances, psychometric tests are used in employment situations to assess a person's suitability for a certain role based on their personality traits.

In my case, I just wanted to see what it would tell me about my own leadership potential.

My three-part leadership development test was organised by New Zealand business psychology firm Winsborough, which uses a personality assessment developed by US company Hogan Assessment Systems.

An hour-long feedback session with Winsborough partner Sonya Cowen, who sums me up as: pragmatic, direct, self-aware and driven to achieve high quality results.

But that's just some of the good stuff. My less ideal traits come through when we look at my personality when put under pressure.

Cowen says often our "dark" behavioural tendencies are personality dispositions developed from childhood around how we got attention and affection from parents.

Apparently I have a "shortish fuse" on a "normal-sized bomb", meaning I feel stress early on and tend to lose patience.

Most people would see only a calm exterior until something pushes me to express my frustration.

A booklet Cowen gave me says leaders with a similar score to mine seem intense and energetic but are also unpredictable and hard to read.

They also worry about their performance and take criticism personally but are willing to admit mistakes, listen to feedback and coaching and try to improve. 

I also scored highly in "dutifulness", which meant I am apparently likeable but also reluctant to express contrary opinions and I am eager to please. 

Under stress, this means I have trouble pushing back and end up working harder to try and fit things in.

"I see people with that score higher in their careers and they've had breakdowns and burnout. If you think about the fact you're more susceptible to stress and you take criticism onboard, this is something you do need to try and work out," Cowen says.

Despite this stern warning, I couldn't help smiling while Cowen, someone I had just met, picked apart my personality based only on results from a half-hour online test.

Being the self-aware person that I am, none of the results surprised me but I left armed with some tips and tools to become a more effective team member and one day, hopefully, a good leader.

 - Stuff


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