The dark side of charm

by Craig Nudelman

Charismatic leaders and individuals are often at the forefront of economic and political revolutions and movements. 

Their charm, enthusiasm, and confidence inspire and influence how people behave. Think of Mother Theresa, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Adolf Hitler, Barack Obama, Jacinda Ardern, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. They can be good or bad, but they all have the same traits and characteristics. Their magnetism brings people in and can change not only the people to whom they speak but also the global world order. Sometimes, they can even be seen as superhuman. However, do charismatic leaders always build a stronger and healthier environment?

An example of a modern charismatic leader is the Israeli-born serial entrepreneur Adam Neumann, who started the company WeWork. I know this because I’m currently watching WeCrashed, a show that I’ve been watching on Apple TV+, which shows the rise and fall of WeWork. Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway’s performances are fantastic, and I highly recommend it. One of the most fascinating elements of the show is Neumann’s charisma and ability to make people believe in his vision of a coworking space, based on his upbringing on a kibbutz. From a single floor of a building in New York to 756 locations in 38 countries (including one in Cape Town), 

Neumann’s vision was embraced by all who met him. It wasn’t necessarily his amazing entrepreneurial skills that made him the success he was until he was asked to resign in 2019 due to poor financial choices. It was his charisma and charm that hooked people onto the idea of WeWork and ensured that he was able to grow it into a multibillion-dollar company. His vision was extraordinary, and it did bring about a change. So, what is it about these charismatic leaders that give them these remarkable powers?

Sujan Patel, writing for, speaks about five traits that define good leaders, in general: Confidence; creativity; a vision; strategy; and excellent communication. First off, confidence. A person who exudes confidence draws people in, as they don’t show the self-doubt and second-guessing that we mere mortals may experience. Their optimism and self-belief are contagious, and their followers will know that whatever the cost, it is for the greater good.

Charismatic leaders are creative and think out of the box, which connects directly with the vision of what the leader wants, even though it could be seen as risky and, perhaps, problematic. An example would be Adam Neumann losing money for what he thought would be for the benefit of the company.  During a spending frenzy in 2016, which led to laying off seven per cent of WeWork’s staff and freezing hiring, he said, “I believe that doing the right thing will not only create the best culture and the best product, but you’ll also make the most money — even if you’re making decisions that lose you money in the short term.”

A leader also must be determined to make their vision a reality. Everything that they do and say must set out their goals and work with the team around them to develop an organizational strategy which will work to their advantage. They, in the words of Winston Churchill, will never give up and never surrender, no matter the obstacles they face. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to communicate with confidence and charisma. Both their verbal and body language is used to perfection to pique peoples’ attention and ensure their message comes across; their goals and visions are always the focus of the listener.  

But charismatic leaders can be detrimental to individuals and society as a whole. One example of such a charismatic leader is Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced former CEO of Theranos, a now-defunct company focussed on health technology. Holmes envisioned the creation of a medical device, called the Edison, which could analyse blood tests without the use of needles or a lab. She used powerful body language and utilised her naturally deep voice to convey, super-confidently, how her vision of ‘democratising healthcare’ would change the world for the better. Her charisma and charm saw that, by the end of 2004, she had raised $6 million to fund her firm, and by the end of 2010, she had raised
$92 million in venture capital. Not only did she attract investors, but she always had incredibly influential individuals on her board of directors, including former US Secretary of State George Shultz.

However, she was investigated by The Wall Street Journal after a medical expert thought the Edison device seemed suspicious, with many of the machines not actually doing what they were supposed to. In 2015 it was reported that the company had published inaccurate data and Holmes was banned from selling the blood-testing units to stores across America. The company was formally dissolved in September 2018, and Holmes was eventually found guilty of defrauding investors, with sentencing to take place in September this year. However, during the trial, she still insisted to the jury that Theranos’s vision was to ‘democratise healthcare’, with The New York Times relaying her testimony, “(that it is) not a crime to be optimistic about the possibilities of the technology that she herself was misled about by her own expert staff.”

Her charismatic leadership, like that of so many other leaders throughout history with the same qualities, destroyed countless lives through unemployment and fraud. She displayed a lack of transparency about the organisation and created no place for dissent or questioning within Theranos. For more information about her and Theranos, I recommend watching the documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.

At a political level, a similar style of leadership took place in Soviet Russia under Stalin, where the Communist party terrorised those who questioned the morality of Russia under his rule. And the cult of the individual in Nazi Germany saw Hitler rise to power and orchestrate the murder of six million Jews, and millions of other individuals deemed ‘inferior’ by the Nazi regime; not to mention all those others who lost their lives because of the Second World War. 

Audrey Murrel, the associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration, wrote in Forbes magazine that charisma itself is not terrible. He states, “there are two sides to charismatic leadership. Charisma itself is not wicked or corrupt. It is both an individual and a collective responsibility to establish and maintain ethical cultures, enhance diverse perspectives, and encourage follower’s voice.”

We must ensure we hold our leaders accountable, in all spheres of social and economic engagement. It is only through individual action and engagement that we can maintain a society which is ethical, promoting positive change for all.

Craig is a writer, Jewish professional, and tour guide extraordinaire. His deep bass voice has graced stages, synagogues and studios. He is an obedient husband, father to two spectacular daughters, and is known for dad jokes and trivia.

• Published in the PDF edition of the June 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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