Fighting Fire with Fire: Can true charisma extinguish false populism?


So the Donald Trump era has ended. Not with a bang or a whimper, but an angry snarl and a graceless “concession-without conceding” tweet.

And if the President’s chief political asset – his populist charisma – proved unable to save him, doesn’t it mean this will forever after be considered toxic as a leadership attribute? Many will argue Trump gave charisma an everlasting bad name.

I often get asked how, if so many people are exploiting charisma to enable them to do really bad stuff in the realms of politics or business, can it be morally justifiable to study or even promote the psychology of charisma as legitimate route to power and influence?

This blog will aim to convince you that you should take charisma seriously; that leaders should better understand their power to positively influence others; but that you should be wary enough to distinguish true charisma from false. Above all: there is no moral equivalence between inflammatory populism and true charisma.

The key question – and the fervent hope of many Americans – is whether President-elect Joe Biden can demonstrate true charisma once in office, to bind up the wounds of a divided nation through effective leadership. We simply can’t say that yet.

Yes, Trump showed again and again he had bucket loads of what superficially purported to be charisma. A latter-day Harry Houdini, Trump the showman used charisma to magic himself out of back-against-the-wall situations ranging from impeachment to allegations of sexual impropriety; to evangelise his fanatic base; to practise a stunning reverse takeover of the Republican party; to convince millions with whom he had nothing whatsoever in common that he championed their humble interests.

The best way to analyse Trump’s “charismatic” appeal is to visualise it using part of the Communicate Charisma self-assessment tool. Trump himself hasn’t completed our survey – but many people have used him as their example of a “Great Communicator” for our online survey. (Each person who completes an online self-assessment is first asked to profile a communicator, as a warm-up exercise. This gives us a database of personalities in the public domain.)

Here are some of the keywords they used to define Trump’s influence.

Word cloud for Donald Trump as “Great Communicator.”

Our proprietary algorithm processes these responses into two visual plots. These show how each individual projects him or herself; and what character assets or dimensions that person possesses.

The Two Dimension Plot shows how our survey participants believe Trump projects himself as a communicator. Unsurprisingly, our algorithm defines Trump as an “Evangelist” and a “Convincer” who is also a “Performer” accustomed to selling ideas to a big crowd.

2D Projection plot for Donald Trump

The Seven Dimension Plot shows a “pizza” of the character essence each of us brings to the public conversation. Seven Dimensions of Charisma are inspired by C.G. Jung’s original theory of psychological types that underpins all today’s psychometric testing models.

7D Essence plot for Donald Trump

Each 7D result is unique. In Trump’s case: more energy devoted to Drive and Self-Assurance results in less energy devoted to Collaboration and Empathy.

But most revealing in Trump’s 7D map are the extremely low energy levels attributed to Beliefs, Values and Vision. Trump’s score for Vision and Values was the lowest possible, and the second-lowest for Beliefs.

High scores in these fields are the bedrock of true charisma. They will indicate if a person has genuine transformational leadership skills, as opposed to transactional leadership skills indicated by high levels of Drive and Self-Assurance.

Vision is defined as the capability to be a builder, planner and architect of future possibilities with instinctive grasp of what’s over the horizon. Those with high energy in this Dimension galvanize others to surpass personal barriers. Trump’s “Empirical” scoring is the lowest on our scale. Our commentary says of this score: “Absence of dreams or aspirational plans makes it harder for you to communicate what all humans seek – powerful new possibilities with the spirit to transform events.”

Values are the special commitment to essential principles that wins trust. Those with high energy in this Dimension project a sense of security and rightness, and are well suited to leadership roles involving stewardship and service. Trump’s “Neutral” scoring is the lowest on our scale. Our commentary says of this score: “Shying away from any vision of the future can make you look evasive or unprincipled. No communicator can afford to look selfish or vacillating.”

Belief means having the power to articulate dreams that nourish our spiritual needs. Those with high energy in this Dimension can motivate others to reject limitations and create new realities. Belief underlies every transformation or turnaround story. Trump’s “Questioning” scoring is the second lowest on our scale. Our commentary says of this score: “This unsentimental approach can help set you up to be a ‘champion of doubt.’ A healthy level of distrust may protect us from blindly following the herd, but it’s a lonely and unfriendly position to sustain.”

But just like Houdini – who died of intestinal infection after he challenged a student to punch him in the stomach during a public lecture – Trump’s overweening vanity, and not what purported to be charisma, proved his undoing. Nevertheless, he still scored 75 million votes in November’s election.

Trump’s low scores on Values and Vision

So let’s distinguish Trump’s undoubted populist appeal from what charisma truly is.

True charisma isn’t the recurring narcissistic personality disorder Trump exhibited most starkly when unable to admit his defeat by President-elect Joe Biden. Or the transactional “art of the deal” where the same person – himself – always wins. True charismatic leadership cannot  permit a yawning gap to develop between the promise – ‘Make America Great Again’ – and the reality of an uncontrolled Covid-19 pandemic, a battered economy, and yawning social division. True charisma is about leaders able to forge lasting relationships of trust based on shared values and vision.

Charisma certainly is one route for establishing authority, as the German sociologist Max Weber first argued in his 1922 paper “Three Types of Legitimate Rule.” It’s hard to define because charisma is experienced subjectively by those will to allow their opinions and their actions to be influenced – sometimes unconsciously or even against their better judgement.

Latter-day management school gurus retooled Weber’s original ideas about charisma. In the 1970s, James Macgregor Burns created sub categories for leaders who first get things done and so win loyalty to get more things done (transactional leadership), and leaders who inspire people to get things done by mobilizing, inspiring, exalting, and uplifting, rather than using power for its own sake (transformational leadership).

As I hope I’ve shown, transformational leadership using the positive, value-and-vision-based attributes of authentic charisma, are the best way of “fighting fire with fire”. That’s to say using true charisma in the public domain as a powerful antidote to the dangerous populism that uses false charisma to inflame and divide.

Superficially, no one could accuse 77-year-old Joe Biden of being a charismatic orator. Yet in his much-praised victory speech Nov 8th he promised to lead with compassion, decency and character to heal the nation’s soul. He referred repeatedly to the troika of values, vision and belief. He quoted Ecclesiastes.

Will this be enough to lance the infected boil of populism? Probably not. Biden has work to do.

But defeat for Donald Trump and his vaunted ability to press deep psychological buttons in the US electorate by harnessing “spoken thought” types of communication, sends a clear warning to demagogues everywhere. Trump’s populist imitators to left or right – Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil; Hungary’s Viktor Mihály Orbán; Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Filipino strongman Rodrigo Roa Duterte – are on notice that eventually, true charisma will extinguish false populism.

Yet charisma isn’t just for presidents. It’s for everyone  who needs to recruit or be recruited, who pitches ideas, makes a sale — or needs to earn the benefit of the doubt, or  win over hearts and minds when the  horizon is unclear. If you’d like to learn more, please click here.

If you want to take the Self-Assessment Test, then write to Richard House at



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.