How to be a charismatic leader

Leaders are often charged with setting an organization’s vision and inspiring others. Charisma is attributed to leaders by people in the organization who interact with them.

Research co-authored by University College London School of Management’s Dr. Martin Kilduff examines what conditions and qualities contribute to the development of a charismatic leader. The study, titled The Leader-in-Social-Network Schema: Perceptions of Network Structure Affect Gendered Attributions of Charisma, shows that perceptions of leadership depend not only on whether the leader is a man or a woman but also on the social network context of their followers (PDF, 573KB).

What is a social network?

While we might think of social networks as our set of Facebook friends and followers on Instagram and Twitter, the concept is much simpler. A social network is a group of people and the connections or gaps between them. Kilduff’s research examines the friendships and connections we make when we interact in face-to-face conversations that involve friendship, advice, and idea exchange.

“I don’t focus on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms,” Kilduff said. “In some ways, those are pale shadows of the actual face-to-face interactions that are very important in organizational settings.”

Men and women each have qualities that make for great charismatic leaders. Showing how their strengths work for specific social network structures allows leaders and followers to consider why certain characteristics work for different types of organizations.

What are centralized and cohesive networks?

Organizations can be structured according to two distinctive prototypes: either as a centralized, hierarchical network or as a cohesive, interactive network.

Kilduff describes them this way:

Centralized network:

A single figure or small group of individuals dominates. The center exhibits great power and influence, with everyone in the network connecting to it.

Cohesive network:

There is no central figure at the center. Instead, influence is spread throughout the group.

In a centralized network, “leaders are right at the center and the followers direct their attention to them in terms of liking or advice,” according to Kilduff.

With cohesive networks, density, or the number of ties within a network relative to the number of ties possible, matters. It may be the same as in the centralized network, but the ties are shared among members rather than being directed at a central figure.

“The arrows and connections are going every which way, and lots of people are sharing in the connectivity,” said Kilduff. “The cohesive network is one in which many people are connected to each other rather than everyone being connected to the center.”

When it comes to organizations, size does matter. “Larger networks inevitably become less cohesive,” Kilduff said, because the number of possible ties between people rapidly increases as new people join. Leaders are either victims or beneficiaries of followers’ expectations, which are shaped by social network contexts and the leaders’ attributes. 

How does personal bias affect how leaders are chosen?

Political leaders are often chosen because of personal bias, according to Kilduff. Bias is the collective set of attitudes, behaviors and actions that favor or oppose one person or group.

In a centralized network, followers expect to find a leader who exhibits power, dominance, courage and boldness. Masculine leaders are more likely to be seen as appropriate because they are perceived to have the requisite controlling and dominant qualities that match the centralized social network context. The perception is that masculine leaders project the message: “I have a plan for the future. I am the strong leader who will lead you to the sunny uplands,” Kilduff said.

Characteristics that are gendered for men

Men are perceived as charismatic leaders when the qualities they are seen as possessing are useful for the organisation. Characteristics that are gendered stereotypes for men: 

Assertiveness

Achievement oriented

Competitiveness

In cohesive networks, communality is expected, and women are seen as more appropriate leaders because they are perceived as having better social skills. Women are seen as supportive and nurturing, which may bring people together in solidarity. Women leaders are linked to certain gender stereotypes, Kilduff said.

Characteristics that are gendered for women:

Women are perceived as charismatic leaders when the qualities they are most associated with benefit the organisation. Characteristics that are gendered stereotypes for women: 

Nurturing

Collaborative

Caring

Kilduff and his colleagues debunked the conventional wisdom that men are always attributed with more charisma than women.

“Women can have their own leadership styles and engage in ways of leading that are different and that play to the strengths that they are perceived to have,” he said.

How can followers choose effective leaders?

To widen the pool of potential leaders in any scenario, followers should be aware of gender biases and avoid them. Kilduff discusses how to select the best leaders:

Avoid making fast decisions or assumptions based on biases

Don’t be so quick to judge. “We may be dismissing very effective women leaders because we’re penalizing them for their competence and assuming or attributing coldness to them, and we may be giving male leaders a pass even though they’re not particularly competent and perhaps not particularly warm.”

Challenge the stereotypes

Be willing to take risks. “The history breaking number of women elected to U.S. Congress shows things are happening. We’ve seen more younger women running for election and challenging stereotypes, but it’s going to take some work to make progress throughout society. Maybe we need a female president in order to overturn stereotypes created through hundreds of years of bias.”

Consider options such as breaking up a fast-growing organisation into smaller units to preserve cohesion

Be creative and flexible about other ways to set up teams and managers. “There are ways that women can strategically intervene in organizations to preserve and enhance the kind of perceptions that people have of them and to facilitate their own effectiveness.”

Great charismatic leaders don’t have to look alike or fit a certain mold.

“Once one goes beyond the individual and his or her characteristics,” Kilduff said, “we realize that our opportunities, our careers and the things that we need to achieve are influenced by the social network context in which we operate.”

Citation for this content: The UCL Online MBA