Unless you have sworn off television, you’ve likely heard of the extremely popular Apple TV comedy series, Ted Lasso. The show features the trials and tribulations of a former American college football coach hired to manage an English soccer club, with no prior experience.

The feel-good show has been a runaway hit across almost every demographic in large part due to the charismatic personality of its title character, Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis. It’s almost impossible not to like Lasso or be inspired by him in some way.

Lasso is a great example of a charismatic leader. This type of leader exercises a compelling charm that inspires others to follow them. Specifically, charismatic leaders demonstrate these five key qualities.

  1. Empathy: They excel at meeting people where they are, and knowing what tone, tactic or approach is best with any given audience.
  2. Empowerment: They leave people feeling energized and empowered to give their best for the team or organization.
  3. Trust: They excel at building and keeping trust with others, making others feel secure in following their vision.
  4. Valuing Others: They make people believe they are valuable and can contribute significantly to the team’s success.
  5. Accountability: They accept accountability for the team’s failures and share credit for wins with the team.

As I have been watching season two of Ted Lasso, I have also been closely following the trial of the disgraced former CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes is attempting to defend herself against 12 charges of fraud that led to the bankruptcy of her company, which was once worth over $9 billion dollars. The story of Theranos and Holmes was brilliantly detailed in John Carreyrou’s bestselling book, Bad Blood, which painted a picture of Holmes as a narcissist.

Many people think of charisma and narcissism as different branches of the same tree. At face value, the traits appear to have significant overlap; many charismatic and narcissistic people share similar qualities, as they both are often outgoing, magnetic, visionary and well-spoken. However, when you look under the hood, you’ll find charisma and narcissism have totally different engines.

Narcissists, unlike people who are authentically charismatic, have some distinctly different characteristics:

  1. Ego: A narcissist is driven by ego first and foremost; they are intensely focused on their image and how they are perceived by others. They want to be the center of every story and cannot bring themselves to be vulnerable with others.
  2. Dishonesty: Narcissists lie often, including about seemingly trivial and meaningless things, because they don’t really differentiate between truth and fiction.
  3. Lack of Guilt: A reason why narcissists are so dishonest is they lack guilt or shame; lying does not seem to cause them stress or discomfort. For the average person, lying creates a significant cognitive burden that is visible. This is why narcissists are such effective liars, and why people struggle to see through their dishonesty.
  4. Doubling Down: When a narcissist is cornered, especially when caught in a lie, they almost always double down, rather than admit wrongdoing. We saw this from Holmes, who stated she was going to start a new company, even though she was facing criminal charges and banned from serving as a director again.
  5. Self-Victimization: When a narcissist is criticized or experiences failure, they usually respond by dismissing their critics as haters or claiming they are the victims of a conspiracy against them. They never admit any wrongdoing or culpability.

In a perfect illustration of the last point, the cornerstone of Holmes’ defense rests on painting her as a helpless victim at the hands of her ex-boyfriend and business partner, Sunny Balwani, despite the fact that Balwani was Holmes’ top lieutenant and often acted at her direction. This is a highly risky strategy known as an affirmative defense; Holmes is essentially admitting to what the company is accused of doing, but is insistent that it’s not her fault.

Furthermore, Holmes was the leader and public face of the company, and multiple employees have testified to her tight control and micromanagement over every detail of Theranos’ operations behind the scenes.

While it may be tempting to conflate charisma and narcissism, the differences become clear, especially in a leadership context. A charismatic leader makes other people feel good about themselves and seeks to elevate others. Conversely, a narcissist leader always makes everything about them, seeks to control everything, and ultimately takes responsibility for nothing.

Quote of The Week

“There may be no I in team, but there are two in narcissist.”


– Anonymous