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When does charisma hinder leadership?

FIU Center for Leadership’s global search for best dissertation concludes in Belgium.

Charismatic leaders often are praised for their charm and ability to inspire devotion in others. They’re effective. They have influence. But can a leader’s charisma become “too much of a good thing”? Dr. Jasmine Vergauwe’s search for a tipping point reveals how and when leadership trait-perspectives can derail organizational missions, operations, and results.

The work of Dr. Vergauwe, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Developmental, Personality and Social Psychology at Ghent University in Belgium, was awarded the Center for Leadership at Florida International University’s 2018 Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Jasmine Vergauwe

Established in partnership with the Network of Leadership Scholars (NLS), the award honors an individual whose dissertation makes an outstanding contribution to the field of leadership. Dr. Vergauwe will present her findings at the Leadership Research Colloquium, presented by FIU’s Center for Leadership on April 9, 2019. The award includes a $3,000 cash prize.

So what did she find? Her dissertation finds evidence for an inflection point where the benefits of charisma become problematic, but her work also introduces a new way to measure charisma, and a new rating format to assess leader behavior. The comprehensiveness of her dissertation led to three separate scholarly journal publications – an almost unheard of outcome for a dissertation, and a summary of her research was also published in the September 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review

“Leaders need to be seen as having that spark of charisma that can stimulate people, but very high levels of charisma seem to collide with actually getting things done. Having charisma allows you to clearly articulate a vision and generate buy-in, but at the end of the day leaders also have to guide others to get things done,” said Dr. Vergauwe.

“This is an important topic in leadership research and I’m honored that the Center for Leadership recognized my work.”

In her research, Dr. Vergauwe introduced two new trait-based measures of charisma and demonstrated that charismatic personality predicts career success 15 years later. Her first chapter revealed how highly charismatic personalities often enjoy higher income and managerial positions and are likely to attain future leadership roles. However, her second chapter discovered that as leaders rise in managerial positions, charisma does not always translate to leadership effectiveness. She discovered an “inverted U-shaped relationship” between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness as rated by leaders’ subordinates, peers, and superiors – which means that leaders with moderate levels are perceived to be more effective compared to leaders with both low and high levels of charisma. Dr. Vergauwe further found this “too-much-of-a-good-thing” effect could be explained by specific leader behaviors or limitations. Leaders lacking charisma may be less effective because they lack strategic behavior, while highly charismatic leaders are less effective because they lack operational behavior. 

In the third chapter of her publication, the “too little/too much” scale has been described as an innovation in leadership assessment that may facilitate the detection of curvilinear effects. A global management-consulting firm now is integrating the scale into their leadership programs.

“We changed the conversation from charisma, as purely something in the perception of others, to something that is also part of one’s personality,” she said. “This dissertation was the first to propose personality-based operationalizations of charisma, or charismatic personality, and provide evidence that charisma is indeed substantially grounded in one’s personality.”

“As with past award winners, Dr. Vergauwe’s work pushes the boundaries of leadership research and how it can improve leadership effectiveness and organizational results,” said Dr. Nathan Hiller, academic director for The Center. Dr. Hiller oversaw the international committee that blindly reviewed the final 19 dissertations submitted from four countries. “Our partnership on this award with the Network of Leadership Scholars from the Academy of Management is shedding new light on leadership at a global level.”

Dr. Vergauwe will continue her research in the field of leadership.  She recently obtained a grant from the FWO (Research Foundation – Flanders) for her proposal entitled “Shedding new light on 360° leadership assessment: A multi-rater framework for studying leadership.” Although the main focus of the project is methodological, one of the objectives is to further test the possibility that the relationship between charisma and leader effectiveness can vary according to who is doing the observing.

Click here to learn more about The Center, Dr. Jasmine Vergauwe, and past dissertation award winners.