What We’re Looking For In Leaders

There’s a rationale to charisma — one that explains why we choose the leaders we do. The first part of that explanation has to do with our desire to identify with our leaders. In general, we tend to follow or be influenced by those with perceived similarities to ourselves. Psychologists call this homophily. At its most basic, homophily can refer to an identification with physical characteristics. If you are tall, male, and white, you tend to identify with leaders who are tall, male, and white. If you are female, African American, and over fifty, you tend to identify with leaders who are also female, African American, and over fifty. Of course, identification can go deeper than physical attributes. If you have a southern accent and enjoy hunting, chances are you will identify more strongly with a political leader who also hails from the South and supports gun ownership. If you have strong religious convictions, you feel more comfortable being led by someone who is also religious.

Perceived similarity is one aspect to leadership identification, but so is perceived difference. We are not necessarily looking for our leaders to be absolutely like us; we also hope that they have some differences. Those dissimilarities, however, should be positive ones — what’s known as optimal heterophylly. We hope that our leaders are smarter than we are, more competent, more visionary, and more articulate. We want them to be like us at a core level, but better than us too. We are drawn to leaders we can look up to and idealize.

Political consultants monitor these two variables closely. When consultants poll voters to determine which candidate they are most comfortable with, they are essentially asking whom they identify with most strongly. When they ask voters which candidate embodies a critical value like strength, integrity, or virtue, they are assessing the degree of idealization. Similarly, if the leader of your organization articulates values that you embrace and a vision that you share, chances are that you are open to being highly influenced and directed by that person. You feel that this person is like you at some basic level, but also capable of directing you to a place you could not get to by yourself.

The Mystique Factor

There’s a third aspect of charisma: the idea of mystique. Charismatic leaders are people who are both like us and better than us, but they are also a bit mysterious or intriguing. There’s something about them that we can’t fully grasp or ever know. That unknowable quality beckons us to try and learn more. Picture a cat in the backyard that hears a rustling behind a bush. It stops and waits to hear the sound again. Curious, it pokes behind the bush and becomes more engaged and focused. Intrigue or mystique is a powerful aspect of the charisma taboo, a lure that draws us in.

Copyright © 2007 Anthony F. Smith from the book The Taboos of Leadership by Anthony F. Smith Published by Jossey-Bass; April 2007;$24.95US/$29.99CAN; 978-0-7879-9582-9