Have you ever asked yourself this? It is a term that is often bandied about in leadership discussions. But what does it actually mean and why is it important for HERA to talk about it?

Recently, being a charismatic leader has come up in many conversations for me (and not by my initiation).

It’s prompted me to want to talk about it more, because I’ve also grappled with this myself for some time. I know it’s an issue affecting some of our members (including student ones) because I’ve been involved in a number of discussions where they’ve mentioned self-doubts that they are seen as charismatic leaders.

I think sometimes it might be embarrassing to admit this, so I’m hoping this conversation will help break that stigma.

I want to change the conversation

I was recently on a University panel to look at the attributes of a new Head of School. What I noticed was essentially the feedback from academic staff all related to the soft skills they wanted in the new Head – many of which would usually be seen as attributes of charismatic leadership.

I’ve also had a conversation on the weekend that made me start to think about the underlying issue here – more specifically, why is the focus on charismatic leadership an issue?

Well because charisma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The stereotypical engenderment of beauty is female. We don’t often refer to men as beautiful. On the other hand, we don’t often refer to women as charismatic and engenderment of charisma tends to be male.

This can be a problem for women when we start talking about charismatic leadership. I’m not saying that it’s not an issue for men as well – but I am saying it appears to be a common issue for women.


When you think of a charismatic leader, what or who do you think of?

I suspect many people will think of someone with an authoritative approach. Someone who is confident. Someone with “presence”. Someone who is male?

Be honest… did anyone immediately think of a woman?

I myself, have often received feedback that I need to improve my presence. This feedback was given as an example of a lack of charismatic leadership – that I needed to improve my stance, my gestures, my voice, my ability to initiate small talk and smile more in order to make me a more likable leader. Essentially I needed to change many of the things that make me me!

Now, obviously feedback is always useful but sometimes no matter how well intended the feedback, it is actually reflecting unconscious biases.

The problem is that I could change those things but I wouldn’t really be myself then would I? This is the problem with charismatic leadership. It pushes people towards a stereotypical version of leadership, which we can’t all conform to. Nor, should we.

On the other hand (and this is the weekend conversation that I had), if you appreciate values-based leadership, like to have deep and meaningful conversations about politics and climate change versus sport, then you may find I have some charisma.

Hence, I am hopeful that there is a place amongst millennial’s for charismatic leadership to mean something more inclusive than what it means for my own generation.


So, what should the conversation turn to?

My view is that we should stop talking about charismatic leadership and start to talk more about authentic leadership.

Leaders should come in a diverse range of genders, sizes, postures, voice volumes, hair colours and styles, clothing styles, personal interests, preferred conversation topics, introversion/extroversion, sporting interests and social backgrounds. What matters is getting the job done and engaging people in that process. None of which relies upon any of the attributes in that list.

What actually matters is that our leaders are able to be themselves and that they are able to provide leadership and inspiration towards desired outcomes.

Let’s stop talking about these things in performance reviews and embrace diverse leadership styles. If you are expecting all leaders to have the same attributes and you are comparing leaders, then you may be missing out on some really exciting different approaches to leadership that could have new outcomes for your organisation.


Why is this important for me to say?

Because I am an unconventional leader.

I don’t want others, particularly other women, seeing their unique leadership qualities being discarded because they don’t fit the leadership stereotype or they are said to lack “charisma”.

I don’t want them thinking they’re inadequate or lack potential.

I don’t want them beaten down so that they forget to have confidence in their own uniqueness.

And I don’t want them leaving the profession because they are so despondent.

Those types of comments can be soul destroying, because they relate to what makes us us. You can spend a lot of time trying to improve yourself but ultimately you shouldn’t have to change yourself too much.  This type of pressure may be contributing to the reason why women are not attracted to our industry (or why some female students are changing their majors).

It also may explain why almost every meeting that I go to, I am sitting at table with a fairly homogenous looking group of people.

Let’s change that.


Did this resonate?

If it did, then you may consider joining our newly developed HR community dubbed ‘Kotahitanga’ – meaning unity, togetherness, solidarity, or collective action.

It’s in direct response to industry wide concerns around the growing skills gap and ability to attract and retain good staff. Kotahitanga will be designed to foster collaboration and co-creation of metals industry specific initiatives to address this challenge, so if you want to ensure your organisation is prepared for the #futureofwork – then joining ‘Kotahitanga’ is a must!

If you want more details, get in touch with our Innovation Centre Manager Greg Buckley at kotahitanga@hera.org.nz.