leadership

Beware of charisma mirrors

There are people who look much better than they actually are. They trick other people into admiring them for virtues that they do not actually possess. Sometimes they do this by using their charisma like a mirror. 

It works along these lines (I’m using ‘he’ here both for ease of reading and because this is *often* male-coded behavior, but there are also people who do this who aren’t men):

  • Charisma Man is a bad leader. He talks a lot about important causes, but doesn’t do any effective work on them. 
  • Mostly, Charisma Man insults all the leaders who are doing serious work on those causes for not having fixed it yet.
  • Idealistic people see that the problem hasn’t been solved yet, and assume that it’s because the other leaders don’t care as much as Charisma Man does.
  • They are sincere, and they think Charisma Man is too. 
  • They will tell everyone that Charisma Man is kind and wise and good.
  • None of this is actually true. There is wisdom and kindness and sincerity and goodness in the room, but it’s not coming from Charisma Man, it’s coming from his followers. 
  • When they look at Charisma Man, they see their own good qualities reflected back, and then give him credit for them.
  • Charisma Man is wielding his charisma like a mirror in order to stop people from noticing what he is actually like. 
  • People don’t notice all the ways that Charisma Man is failing at leadership because they’re seeing their own reflected goodness instead.
  • They also don’t notice all the ways that they are good and competent and valuable because they are attributing everything good they notice to Charisma Man.

If you are admiring a leader in an unbounded way and losing sight of your own worth, you might be looking at a charisma mirror rather than reality. It’s worth asking yourself: 

  • What does this leader do that I think is admirable? 
  • Do they actually do those things?
  • Is it unusual to do those things? Who else does them?
  • How is this leader helping others to be effective?
  • How is this leader valuing other people’s work?
  • When there is kindness and wisdom and sincerity in the room, where is it coming from? Is it from the leader, the followers, or both?

If a leader is making you feel like the only valuable thing you can do is follow them, sometimes is seriously wrong. Everyone, including you, has their own good qualities and their own contributions to make. Good leaders don’t want you to depend on them for your own sense of self worth, and they don’t want you to see them as the only person with something to offer. Good leaders don’t want unbounded admiration from their followers; good leaders collaborate and show respect for other people’s strengths. 

 

image description: "beware of charisma mirrors" written on a vaguely mirror-like shape, next to a cartoon mirror with a cartoony mask face, on a background that's shiny reflective water

image description: "beware of charisma mirrors" written on a vaguely mirror-like shape, next to a cartoon mirror with a cartoony mask face, on a background that's shiny reflective water

7 second rule

If you’re leading a group discussion or teaching a class, it’s important to pause for questions periodically. Part of pausing for questions is giving people time to react before moving on. People can’t respond instantaneously; they need time to react. If you don’t give them time to react, it can give you an inaccurate impression of their level of interest or engagement.


Eg:

  • Leader: Does anyone have any questions?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: Ok, moving on. 

When this happens, it’s not usually because no students had questions. It’s usually because the teacher didn’t give them enough time to process before moving on. It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of time, but there has to be some. A good amount of time to wait is seven seconds. If you wait seven seconds before moving on, someone will usually say something.


Seven seconds can feel like a really long time when you are teaching. It can feel like an awkward empty space that, as the teacher, you’re supposed to be filling. That can lead to interactions like this:

  • Leader: I just said a controversial thing. What do you think of the thing?
  • Group: …
  • Leader (immediately):… none of you have opinions about this?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: (immediately):… Really? No one?

When this happens, it’s usually not that no one had anything to say. It’s usually that the leader or teacher kept interrupting them while they were trying to get words together and respond. It’s easy to inadvertently do this, because it feels like you’re supposed to be doing something to get your students to respond. But, often, the best thing you can do to get them to respond is to wait and give them space to do it in.


It helps to remember that as the teacher or leader, you shouldn’t actually be taking up all of the space. You should also be offering your students some space and listening to them, and allowing them to ask you questions so they can understand. It’s ok if that space isn’t immediately filled; no one can react instantaneously. 


If you wait seven seconds every time you pause for questions/responses, it gives people time to process, and some people will become capable of participating who weren’t before.