London Business School Charm School. Do you have charisma?

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Some people are just natural born leaders aren’t they? Not according to new research by Dr Raina Brands, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School, who suggests it’s more complex than that.

“Far from being an innate gift possessed by the lucky few, charisma is in the eye of the beholder,” says Dr Brands. “We bestow it on those we see as embodying traits we associate with powerful leadership.” Her research shows that the people we perceive as the most charismatic leaders differ dramatically as a result of the informal team advice networks they function within.

Charisma: a relationship

It’s the most slippery and unpredictable of characteristics and, unlike many of the traits we like to see embodied by our leaders, remarkably free from moral judgement. Nelson Mandela had it, Princess Diana exuded it and Bill Clinton is famous for his powerful, out right disarming charisma. It’s nothing to do with being likeable or ‘good’ – Hitler was a charismatic leader, as was Osama bin Laden, both rallying devoted followers to their cause – but it’s one of the most potent traits a leader seeking to exact profound change can embody.

Although there are books devoted to unravelling the mystery of capturing and showcasing charisma, Dr Brands’ definition of the trait as something that we, as followers, grant our leaders, is more in line with the word’s origins.

The word ‘charisma’ comes from Greek, meaning grace or gift. In the biblical sense, it meant a holy gift from God rather than from your team; in the New Testament, the charismata represented a series of supernatural gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit, and relayed by Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Charisma in a modern sense was defined by the sociologist Max Weber as a relationship, rather than an innate quality belonging to an individual. But, according to Dr Brands’ research, it goes beyond that – not only does it represent both relationship and gift, it is also heavily influenced by differing social structures and work place environments.

Think manager, think man?

Dr Brands and her colleagues conducted a series of studies that looked at how people’s perceptions of their leaders differed depending on the informal exchange of advice they perceived in their team. The key finding from all three studies was that where informal team advice networks function to a traditional, hierarchical, status-driven structure, men are perceived as better leaders. So far, so unsurprising? After all, Dr Brands says that when most people are asked to think of the best leader they’ve worked with, one who inspired and motivated them to success, they ‘think manager, think man’. She ascribes this to an established psychological phenomenon, which sees the traits we have grown to associate with leadership – forceful, strong or dominant – stereotypically associated with men rather than women.

What took Dr Brands and her colleagues by surprise was that when the informal team advice networks flat lined to a less hierarchical, more collaborative workplace, the gap didn’t just narrow – women were perceived as stronger leaders than their male counterparts.

Dr Brands admits that the swing in perception caught her by surprise. “I think I was probably expecting that in these dense networks we’d see the gender gaps even up,” she says. “What surprised me was the reversal of the bias so that women were actually seen as better leaders than men in these very cohesive workplace contexts. That’s surprising because it’s just so rare. It’s very rare to see any gender bias that doesn’t favour men.”

The reason for this mismatch in perception of leaders is complex. The deeply held cultural stereotypes that see us endow our leaders with traditionally masculine qualities go some way to explaining why, in industries that tend to be female dominated, such as teaching, there’s evidence to suggest men don’t suffer the same discrimination women face when the tables are turned. As Dr Brands says, it’s rare to see gender bias that favours women.

“Once we have the associations between a certain job and a certain gender, the job sort of becomes fused with those characteristics, so we think teachers have to be endowed with a certain set of skills, which we think of as stereotypically feminine, to be successful,” explains Dr Brands.

“So in those industries women do tend to have more success moving into leadership roles. What’s interesting is that we don’t see that gender bias reversed. Men don’t struggle to get into leadership roles in female dominated industries. And that’s because ‘think manager, think man’ still exists in female dominated industries because gender stereotypes around leadership are a universally shared prototype. I think women do have more opportunities in those female dominated industries but we still see this association between masculinity and leadership.”

With many informal team networks still adhering to traditional hierarchies, the results could be seen as a depressing indictment of the prejudices women face due to mismatched perceptions around which gender better embodies tropes associated with being a charismatic leader. Dr Brands says that our association with stereotypically male traits and strong leadership is so powerful that we will attribute certain physical actions to male leaders, even when evidence shows they have not carried them out. In one of her studies, participants were faced with identical scenarios, with the only difference being an obviously gendered name – Michael or Michelle.

But it didn’t stop them erring toward naming Michael as the better leader when the scenario was a traditional, hierarchical one, despite there being no evidence that he outperformed Michelle.

But Dr Brands is eager to focus the outcomes of her research on the positive message for female leaders. “It could be seen as just reframing the question, because a success factor can also be a failure factor,” she admits. “While women were seen as stronger leaders in less hierarchical networks, they were perceived as weaker in the more traditionally ‘structured’ workplaces where team advice networks reflect the hierarchical structure.

“There is a lot of research on gender and it’s a really important topic. We know a lot about what holds women back but there isn’t always a symmetry there about what pulls women forward. So I try and buffer the inevitably bleak findings of my research, in terms of the prejudice women face in the workplace, with a sense of improving outcomes for women because I think that’s also extremely important.”

What does it mean for women in management?

On the one hand, the results appear to show a depressing situation for women in that they indicate a clear bias towards men when it comes to perception as a charismatic leader in traditional, hierarchical teams.

But it indicates a fairer field when the network is flatter and less hierarchical – a direction in which many modern workplaces are going, with matrix working and cross-team management. In this sense, it’s good news for women seeking leadership roles, as our workplaces undergo profound shifts in structure to adapt to modern technologies and new ways of working.

“I would say there is a broad movement away from autocratic, directive styles to a more collaborative, consensus-building approach to leadership,” agrees Dr Brands. “In this paper we focus specifically on charismatic, transformational leadership because that is a very powerful leadership style, which is particularly useful to organisations at the moment and has more of an effect on the direction in which they move – as opposed to a leader who, for example, is more transactional. Certainly we see that in middle management there is less bias against women leaders because middle management typically carries out a lot of people-orientated tasks – relationship building, negotiating between different levels of the hierarchy – and these are typically ‘female’ skills.”

It’s important for organisations to be aware of the unconscious bias that may permeate their ranks. And Dr Brands says that although she’s reticent about offering specific advice to corporations, being aware of the results of her research could offer context for addressing the issue.

But whether true equality is achieved rests with the most senior echelons of leadership, which don’t necessarily follow the same rules as middle management – tending to retain a more traditional hierarchical structure. “It’s not clear that the trends we see in middle management extend to the most senior levels of organisations, particularly large organisations where there’s a sense of high-stakes decision-making at the top,” says Dr Brands. “Where we perceive a need to take tough decisions, even if it means making some people unhappy, we see that switch back to a more directive, masculine, forceful leadership style. So the extent to which our notions of leadership are changing all the way up and down the hierarchy is not clear.”

In other words, there’s still some way to go before the hierarchies of top-level management flatten out. But, with more organisations turning to more cohesive networks and placing value on less status driven relationships and networks, it could mean a new chapter for women leaders and how they are perceived.


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