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Multi-racial group sat around a table listening to a woman presenting an idea to them © Shutterstock

Blog authors, Professor Kamal Mahtani and Sean Heneghan, lead the University of Oxford's brand-new Fundamentals of EBHC Leadership module.

The conservative UK Government welcomes its new leader, Liz Truss, at its annual party conference. The start of her leadership has already proved challenging, with criticisms over early policies. Some have also voiced personal criticism, suggesting that although she may have character, she lacks charisma. In contrast, her predecessor, Boris Johnson, was lauded for his charm and charisma. Still, his apparent lack of character was highlighted even before he became the UK Prime Minister and arguably led to his forced resignation. So what exactly do we want to see in our leaders, character or charisma?

To explore this further, we first thought it sensible to review the definitions of each word:

Character (noun): the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing. A moral or ethical quality.

Charisma (noun): a spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.

We found the research of Binney and colleagues also relevant to our discussion. In their book “Living Leadership”, the authors observed and interviewed leaders in their organisations for 12-24 months. They also conducted several in-depth case study analyses. They suggest that charisma is a social process, much like leadership, and similarly occurs between people during particular moments and situations. However, they concluded that having charisma was not essential to being an effective leader.


Charisma can be a wonderful thing. We experienced it sometimes in our research, and we were bowled over by it. But we are also suspicious of it. We wonder why people want to abandon responsibility and be led by a masterful, charismatic leader. We ask whether the charismatic person is meeting their own needs at the expense of those of others.”

Binney et al., Living Leadership (2012)

In contrast, they felt that having character was an essential part of leadership.

It was people who had a moral strength – with views, opinions, feelings, beliefs that did not change from moment to moment but gave others a sense that “you know who you are dealing with”. When we saw people being effective leaders, they were not necessarily colourful or outgoing. But they were people of substance.

Binney et al., Living Leadership (2012)


So is it character or charisma that we are looking for in our leaders? Perhaps it’s a bit of both? This thought reminded us of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who, many would argue, had great character, but also, as the many recent highlights of her work have shown, had unique charisma too. The national and international response to her passing may well reflect the esteem she held as a leader.

What do you think? We look forward to welcoming more of these debates on our new module, The Fundamentals of EBHC Leadership, which is due to run in March 2023.



Kamal R. Mahtani is a GP and Professor of Evidence-Based Healthcare, Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

Sean Heneghan is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist and Senior Tutor at the University of Oxford.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary represent the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the host institution, the NHS, or an affiliated person or organisation.

Acknowledgements: The authors are grateful to Jeffrey Aronson for helpful comments on an earlier draft.