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The Power Of “Magical Thinking”

Published: April 15, 2015


Vicki Sherwin

Management/Human Resources Management’s Vicki Scherwin recently co-authored a paper with UCLA associate professor Maia Young and Columbia University professor Michael Morris that argues successful business people are often attributed somewhat mystical talents, such as the ability to mesmerize an audience or envision the future. Scherwin suggests that this mystique arises from the intuitive logic that psychologists and anthropologists call magical thinking.

“Managerial Mystique: Magical Thinking in Judgments of Managers’ Vision, Charisma and Magnetism” appeared in 2013 in the Journal of Management. “In a perfect world, we’d solely be concerned with who we really are. But how others see us has a direct effect on our lives and careers,” said Scherwin.

In her research, Scherwin looked at what having “it” means.

“While Steve Jobs was still CEO of Apple, Inc., we showed his bio to test subjects. We asked whether Jobs was gifted. We wanted people to consider ‘how did he make things happen?’ We found he certainly benefitted from magical thinking. The more people saw Jobs as having mystique,” Scherwin said, “the more he was also seen as a visionary in other business tasks that are farther afield from technology and design, like being good at picking stocks, predicting interest rates and GDP growth.”

One way to acquire mystique is to keep leadership strategies close to the vest and be “more private and quiet” about your methods, as Scherwin advises. “However, the down side of this for organizations is that this individual strategy makes it hard for others to learn how to be similarly successful,” she said. “While it’s a given that one wants to be thought of as highly effective, it’s actually better for your path to success to remain a bit of a mystery.”

When people ask how they can build up a sense of mystique, Scherwin thinks of self-awareness. “If you don’t know who you really are at first, then you can’t build mystique,” she said. “I tell my students to learn their authentic leadership style first. Then they can sand the edges. “If they do not have an awareness of where they are coming from, any impression management attempts will be seen as transparent.”

To solve the mystique mystery, Scherwin used “scenario studies” that involved participants reading about a fictionalized manager.

“One story traced the story of a marketing manager,” she explained. “Half the participants read that this manager succeeded through hard work. The other read that the manager succeeded because he had a way of making things happen. When the means of success were unclear, the manager was expected to excel in strategic tasks such as making decisions about the direction of the organization.”

Success feeds mystique and mystique feeds success. Four behaviors that lead to charisma are idealized influence, inspirational motivation, individual consideration and intellectual stimulation.

“Charisma and mystique are related but they are not the same,” she said. “Say a company is seeking a CEO. An internal employee may have a harder time winning that job than an outsider. If everyone knows them, they cannot develop mystique. That may help to explain why so many companies seek to hire external CEO’s. They are more likely to come with mystique.”

Magical thinking may be flawed but it is useful. “The natural assumption is that magical thinking is bad. But there is a lot of research, especially in anthropology, that describes how having magical thinking can be helpful,” said Scherwin. “Contagion is the idea that things can pass from person to person. We know that from disease. We studied if a positive mystique could pass from person to person. We found that was so. When someone was attributed with mystique, participants were more likely to want a hug from that person. There are times when magical thinking is beneficial. When anthropologists studied tribes who believed in magical thinking, their belief about how things spread in a magical way helped them stay away from people who were sick. There is no right or wrong to it. It is just where our brains go.”

Sherwin is interested in “transformational leadership,” a style of leadership where the leader is charged with identifying the needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of the group.

“In one of my studies, MBA candidates studied four leadership styles,” she recalled. “Of all the MBA students I interviewed, the overwhelming majority chose the transformational leadership style. When I repeated the interview with non-MBA candidates, it was much more even across the board. People who study leadership are drawn to transformational leadership which is connected to charisma and mystique.”

Scherwin will continue to study subordinates’ impressions of their leaders. “What makes us willing or unwilling to follow?” she wondered. “Mystique is certainly part of it. My biggest research stream focuses on the leader-follower relationship and is based on the idea that individuals need to believe that their leaders are good for them. Everyone thinks you’re a great leader when you’re agreeing with them. What about when you don’t?”