You’re getting ready to hire a new CEO, and you’re down to two candidates. Both are equally qualified, but one has charismatic magnetism like you’ve never seen before. The other does not. Which do you choose?
If you’re like most hiring managers, you’d go for the charismatic one in a heartbeat. It’s easy to see why — people are generally drawn to confident, charming leaders.
However, you might be surprised to hear that according to a host of experts, charisma isn’t the leadership indicator many believe it is.
The idea of the charismatic CEO didn’t develop out of thin air. Most memorable CEOs in recent years (Steve Jobs and Elon Musk come to mind) exude charisma. And since Apple and Tesla are successful companies, it’s easy to conclude that charisma is a sign of a great CEO.
That’s not the only reason so many businesses prioritize charisma during the hiring process. Harvard Business Review’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains that a number of cultural factors have contributed to the preferential hiring of charismatic CEOs — despite the fact that research indicates the best leaders are humble and self-aware.
Many experts are of the opinion that charisma isn’t just a poor indicator of leadership — it’s an indicator of poor leadership. Often, a charming, charismatic exterior is masking an egotistical, even narcissistic interior.
In an article called “Our Addiction to Charismatic Leaders Needs to Stop,” INSEAD professor Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries notes that “many people labelled as charismatic are also quite narcissistic, with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They come across as arrogant and belittling of people they perceive as inferior. In the context of interpersonal relationships, they tend to monopolise conversations and lack empathy.”
So what makes a person like this a poor leader? People with narcissistic traits are self-absorbed and generally don’t focus on helping other people grow. Most successful companies work to develop leadership potential when they see it in a high-level employee.
An arrogant, narcissistic CEO is more likely to ignore opportunities for leadership development. They also may chase away future leaders — skilled and experienced employees usually won’t have an issue finding work with a competitor, and they might prefer the hassle of switching companies over the headache of dealing with a difficult CEO.
Will there be a cultural sea change that pushes us away from hiring for charisma and toward hiring for actual leadership ability? Maybe. But in the meantime, you can inspire a positive change in your business by seeking out a leader who will make your company a better place.
You know that hiring for charisma isn’t a good way to find your next great executive. But what should you look for instead? If you’re preparing to hire a CEO (or anyone involved in company leadership), it might help to focus on the following:
At the executive level, a resume should back up every attribute. So if a candidate claims they’re a financial leader, the resume should have the numbers to prove it.
You shouldn’t expect documented results if you’re hiring for an entry-level position. However, a candidate applying for a high-level position should be able to illustrate how they would be an asset to your company (and how they have been an asset to companies in the past).
Most narcissistic leaders love to talk about bold, industry-changing plans. But if you try to get into the details, you’ll find that there aren’t any. Leaders who lean on charisma and nothing else will often count on people being wowed by their grand schemes — they don’t actually spend time trying to put those plans into action.
If you’re hiring a CEO, you need someone who will take the company in the right direction. The ideal candidate has a clear idea of where your company needs to go, but they also have a clear, actionable plan of how the company is going to get there.
No matter what industry you’re in, you’re bound to run into unexpected circumstances. Through your interview questions, determine whether a candidate has the ability to think on their feet and adapt to changes.
For instance, if your industry has recently been introduced to a disruptive new technology, you might ask how the candidate handled that disruption at their previous workplace.
If your candidate is the kind of narcissistic CEO who belittles those they see as inferior, you aren’t going to see that unsavory side in an interview. The best way to find out how a leader behaves when no one is watching is to go right to the people who know best — those who have worked under them.
In order to represent your company well, your CEO should be an excellent communicator. They should be able to talk to employees, investors, and the general public.
Keep in mind that this goes beyond just conversation; your candidate should be able to speak confidently, but they also should be able to communicate clearly and respectfully through email, text message, and other forms of writing.
When you’re hiring a CEO or other major leader, it’s important to pull back the veil of charisma to see what’s underneath.
It’s possible that your interviewee who exudes confidence and charm is a genuinely humble leader who is always ready to accept input from others. But more often than not, a charismatic nature masks a leader who will ultimately be destructive to a company.
That’s not to say you should automatically eliminate any charismatic candidate. But before the interview process, sit down with the rest of your hiring committee and decide what traits you want to see in a leader. Ultimately, you will likely hire a better leader if you place more value on real results than on the abstract concept of charisma.
Our hands-on CEO recruiters have experience working with private, public, pre-IPO, and non-profit organizations. Clients are typically $50 million in revenue to Fortune 1000’s or have assets over a billion. Successful placements span the entire C-Suite – CEO, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, and include vice president, general counsel, and other director-level leadership roles.
Through our proven retained executive search process, we find, vet, and deliver the top 1% of candidates for positions across the C-suite. Our process works for all industries, including technology, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, real estate, financial services, private equity, and more.
Learn how we deliver top talent, no matter the need, with our industry-leading research and resources. Discover the strategy behind so many glowing Cowen Partners’ reviews — and that’s made us a top retained executive search firm in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and beyond.