evil queen from snow white

The Most Charismatic Leaders Are People You’ve Never Heard of

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By Janet Choi

evil queen from snow white

When you’re in charge, you get used enjoying feeling like the linchpin. Take co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, Rich Sheridan, who used to think: “I liked being the person everyone came to…. There was glory to it. I felt like the smartest guy in the room.”

Back when he was a VP at a company called Interface Systems, he brought his eight-year-old daughter with him to work one day. Her candid observation about his job ended up completely transforming how he thought about management. When she told her dad that he must be very important — because “[a]ll day long… people came in here and asked you to make a decision for them. And you made a decision, and they went on their way” — that threw Sheridan for a loop.

He realized how this style of managing people created a system of bottlenecks and he began to conceive of the right way to manage as a decentralized, bottom-up approach of decision-making. Menlo Innovations now runs as a bossless organization, because being the smartest guy in the room was a liability.

Self-Involved Leaders Aren’t Effective

We’ve been trained to admire the bold, domineering, grandiose personality but that overlooks the very important perspective of the people being led. The bluster of authoritarian leaders, preoccupied with glory and power, may not actually wield as much influence as they’d like. Just think about how many bad bosses have little clue about their actual effectiveness.

Instead, employees value less dazzling and boring traits. The subversion of the all-powerful leader model may be what’s necessary to get people to listen to you. Humility in a leader ends up having a counterintuitive effect.

According to recent research published in Administrative Science Quarterly, humble leaders, such as Menlo’s Sheridan, are actually more likely to empower their management teams. How? Amy Ou and her colleagues point to the six dimensions of a humble CEO: their “humility is grounded in a self-view of accepting that something is greater than the self and manifests in self-awareness, openness to feedback, appreciation of others, low self-focus, and self-transcendent pursuit.”

6 humble traits of charismatic leaders

With this approach of service, humble leaders increase engagement, commitment, and job performance from top and middle managers, creating an overall “collective perception of an empowering organizational climate.”

As the researchers explain, “By putting collective interests over self-interest, humility becomes a powerful source of socialized charisma.”

Where You Focus Determines Your Leadership Level

In Good to Great, Jim Collins describes a similar finding — that the best executives were “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy,” people that nobody had really heard of. These Level 5 leaders, as he calls them, have a curious blend of “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”


5 levels of leadership

The way to identify a Level 5 leader is to study where they tend to focus when it comes to credit and blame. While lower-level leaders may preen in front of a mirror when things go well and blame others when they don’t, Level 5 leaders look outward to credit progress to others and hold themselves accountable when things go wrong.

Humility is a perspective of generosity. When excellence isn’t a zero sum game, you can admit weakness while retaining your confidence, and you can be a strong leader while appreciating other people’s strengths. But when you constantly think you’re the smartest person in the room and that you have all the answers — you foreclose opportunities and limit possibilities.

How to Become A Charismatic Leader

Great leadership is not about you. Here are three ways to make sure you’re maintaining a balanced perspective:

  1. Open yourself up to real feedback. Leadership requires listening. The fact that you’re the boss means you’re removed from what’s going on at the ground level, so you don’t always know best. Actually listening and acting upon the feedback of your team equips you with the knowledge you need to foster continual progress and improvement.
  2. Recognize others’ work. Acknowledge and celebrate other people’s wins, as LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner does to kickstart his executive meetings. This humbling frame of gratitude and accomplishment goes a long way in sustaining motivation and imparting value and meaning into people’s work.
  3. Check yourself. Regularly reflect on your day so you can pay better attention to your actions and gain more accurate knowledge about yourself. Call on your sharply honest inner eight-year-old, who can point to how self-important you’re being. How much do you listen to others? How often are people saying “No” to you?

In understanding that they’re not the center of the universe, it’s the humble, quietly charismatic leader who makes room for breakthroughs.


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