Are charismatic leaders dangerous?

Does one candidate trump the other?

The United States presidential elections are to be held in the next few weeks…

Much has been said about the contrast between the two presidential candidates. Some pundits have pointed out that Donald Trump is a charismatic leader who inspires the public and that Joe Biden is somewhat lackluster in his presentation to voters. Other commentators have noted that Biden is a down-to-earth candidate with a track record of successful legislation, working well with others, and a legacy of public service. This while describing Trump as a self-centered showman and someone who does not know how to navigate the political landscape. Who is right and what might a charismatic leader bring to the table? 

What is charisma?

Charisma has many facets to it. Charismatic individuals may draw your attention without even trying to, and their strong level of self-regard may feel compelling to others. Those with charisma often have a magnetic aura that can radiate a highly charged sex-appeal without them even trying to be provocative. For these people, their physical presence and a mere gaze can stir up the energy in a room so much that it can be felt by others. This energy excites others and it can be arousing for others to catch their gaze or attention. Those with charisma relish being the center of attention and act as if they are the star of the show.

It is important to note, emotionally healthy human beings have developed a sense of empathy, and the ability to sense what another person is feeling and respond to them in kind. In contrast, charismatic people often display an outlook and sense of self which can be virtually contagious to others via the empathy pathways in our human brains. You see the charismatic person, their confidence and commitment to their cause, and your brain’s empathy pathways positive responses inspire your commitment to their causes.

Is charismatic leadership good or bad?

Discussions of charismatic and narcissistic personalities are quite popular now but have been studied by clinicians and social scientists at least since Sigmond Freud in the early 1900s. The term narcissism originated from Greek mythology. In this myth, a beautiful young man named Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection whilst gazing into a pool of water. The story goes on to say, he kept admiring his reflection and died in despair when realizing that he would be unable to seduce his image.

In the Jewish narrative of the Nazir (ones who have vowed to abstain from fermented grape products, cutting their hair and ritual contamination to reflect, improve themselves and enhance their spirituality) a Nazir presents himself to bring his required offerings to the temple. He does this at the end of the period of his Nazarite vow and has his hair cut. A Kohen sees his beautiful hair on the ground and asks why he cut it. The Nazir responds that when he was drawing water and noticed his reflection, he was overcome with pride in his appearance. In order to avoid the temptation to focus on himself and become preoccupied with his good looks, he explains to the Kohen he has learned outward appearance is meaningless in the short time we have here on Earth, and our time should not be wasted on unimportant things. The Kohen praises his insight and extols the virtues of the time he spent as a Nazir in helping him focus on what is important in life.

The myth of Narcissus is similar; yet, different than the writings of our sages in which Hazal ends up with vastly different results. Both writings serve as cautionary tales that warn against selfishness, pride, and teach self-awareness as crucial in overcoming temptation. While Narcissus is tragically unaware of his faults, the writings by Hazal regarding the Nazirite note the importance of honesty, correction, and return (Nedarim 9b and Nazir 4b). As noted by Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky, the Greek myth is told in the negative, when Narcissus tragically succumbs to his fate, while the Gemara is presented in the positive, noting personal change is possible and worthy.

As with most traits, there are both positive and negative attributes to be considered when looking at people with these personality features. Their “bright side” can be seen when they are at their best or a “dark side” when at their worst.

The bright side

The positive side of charismatic leaders is that they make us feel good about ourselves, our strengths, our potential and we like to be led by them. Charismatic leaders inspire us through their positive energy, connecting others, especially team members, and making us feel we are an important part of their team and success. As a result, these leaders often pursue leadership positions or chosen by others for these positions based on their charisma and personal magnetism.

The dark side

While they may be chosen for positions of power, once installed in these positions, charismatic leaders frequently act primarily in their self-interest, putting the needs and interests of others at risk. Unfortunately, these darker attributes erode trust and sabotage relationships, making collaboration with others strained. Even if unintentional, the charismatic leader’s inability to consider the needs of others can lead to situations in which others are harmed.

Unchecked power and a focus on their self-interest can lead to dangerous political situations and risk for others. That said, don’t we as people need a leader to inspire us, to motivate us, to help us share their vision and drive? Like many things, perhaps an amalgam of a leader who is charismatic but not narcissistic is ideal? So, how do we skillfully spot the difference between charisma and narcissism?

To simplify, charisma is the sum of who you are, what you believe about yourself, how you reveal your passion to others, and can help you cultivate ties to individuals, especially those you want to have on board. Narcissists view others as threats to their standing and are more likely to steal your idea than support it. People with true charisma don’t feel the need to constantly seek out validation from others regarding their worth, but narcissists need praise as much as they need food and water.

We should note narcissists are unable to withstand failure and refuse to take personal responsibility when projects fall apart. Charismatic leaders don’t like failure any more than the rest of us, but they can respond constructively while building up the team’s new focus.

What can tip you off that a charismatic leader might be dangerous? Questions to ponder:

  1. Does this person create a sense of purpose around the task or goal at hand?
  2. Does this person acknowledge other’s strengths and encourage them to grow as a person or team member?
  3. Does this person have to ask for validation or does he offer it to others who are involved in the project?
  4. Lastly, when the leader meets with obstacles or has to re-work a plan, does he or she lash out at everyone around them – placing the blame for the failure on others or do they accept that there may be a better path to success and gather the team around her to work together to plot a new course?

In summary

Please exercise your right to vote. Regardless of who you cast your ballot for, it seems wise to consider what inspires us as humans, as Jews, and as a nation. Before pulling the lever or marking your ballot, please consider how we would like to look at our leaders and what we look to them for.

About the Author
Marcia Kesner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Mental Health Counselor with over 25 years of experience and has offices in Brooklyn, New York and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her practice focuses on treatment-resistant, self-harming, and self-sabotaging behaviors and addictive disorders, as well as healing from the after-effects of trauma and abuse. Marcia has recently been incorporating more of an emphasis on shame resilience, vulnerability, and self-compassion into her work.
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