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Charismatic Leadership

Charisma Origins and Definition

The word 'charisma' comes originally from the Greek language. It meant basically 'gift', from the Greek kharisma and kharis, meaning 'grace' or 'favour' - a favour or grace or gift given by God. 

  • The modern meaning has altered greatly, but the original meaning resonates appealingly today because charismatic leaders rely on their personality 'gifts' to influence people and shape their future.

These gifts can include great wisdom or insight, heroism, extraordinary certainty about the future, and perhaps even the claim of a direct link to God, by which a leader may refer to 'God' (or a similar sense of righteousness) as a guide/justification/judge for a difficult and controversial decision. The use of 'God' in such situations of course avoids a degree of personal accountability (on the basis that 'God's judgement' cannot be questioned, and certainly not by followers), and is also a very effective 'charismatic power' technique - whether conscious or otherwise - for a leader to appeal to a big majority of followers by referring to a big scary mysterious force (God) that is implied to approve of the leader's actions. 

  • The 'God factor' is by no means central to charismatic leadership, but it very relevantly illustrates the 'follower projection', which is a crucial feature of this leadership style.

What is Charismatic Leadership?

Charismatic leadership demands more than just a remarkable personality. The followers must also project an image of specialness and authority onto the leader and give the leader power over them. 

Charismatic leadership, therefore, relies on the twin effect of a leader's personality and a strong belief by followers that this special person is the one to lead them in their hour of need.

German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920) too saw charismatic leadership distinctly as a relationship between leader and followers

  • In Weber's view, it has no moral dimension; it can be a force for good or evil. 
  • Using Weber's definition, there is a single indicator of charismatic leadership, which is: do the followers grant authority to the leader based on their view of his or her special gifts? If the answer is yes, this is charismatic leadership. In Weber's eyes, therefore, Adolf Hitler was as much a charismatic leader as Jesus Christ.

Without separate support (such as a loyal army or secret police) these leaders can only hold power while followers continue to believe in the leader's specialness. If the leader disappoints the followers in some way, perhaps because previously hidden flaws are exposed, or the leader fails to deliver promises, the followers' belief tends to fade, draining the authority of the leader. 

For this reason, charismatic leadership runs the risk of being unstable and short-lived.

  • Charismatic leadership is greatly dependent on credibility. 
  • The leader's power remains unless credibility is lost. 
  • When a leader loses credibility, the followers seek new leadership or ways to oust the damaged leader.

To guard against this risk, charismatic leadership may involve a 'cult of personality' to prevent followers from realising that their leader is less impressive than they think. 

  • Accordingly, propaganda and manipulation of media are often used to create and uphold an idealised public image of the leader, often backed up by extreme flattery and praise. 
  • We see this in political 'spin' and the work of 'spin doctors'. We also see it in certain organisations, such as Richard Branson's Virgin empire, in which the leader's image is very strongly managed through intensive PR (Public Relations) activities. 
  • All large corporations employ PR agencies to help present the corporation in a positive light in the media. For many high-profile organisations, the protection and enhancement of the leader's image is a big priority in these publicity methods.

Although charismatic leadership can be short-lived, it can also leave a lasting legacy if the leader's policies and teachings are preserved in laws, rules and norms and there is a bureaucracy to uphold them. You will see this long ago happening, for example, in the major religions of the world. We are perhaps seeing the establishment of substantial legacies in modern times too in the charisma and reputation of recent charismatic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Fidel Castro.

Charismatic leadership can be effective in the sense that it can cause swift change:

  • Followers become highly mobilised and enthused.
  •  We see the potential for action by followers on a vast scale when a particularly charismatic figure dies. Princess Diana is a notable example. Millions of people are moved to action, motivated by the effect of a human presence who for extraordinary reasons can captivate a vast audience. 
  • The same sort of huge effect of a charismatic person on a big group of followers is also demonstrated by the influence of major figures in music and sport. Some people achieve so much success that they are able to transfer their reputations and followings to entirely different arenas, for example:
    •  Imran Khan, the Pakistani politician and former cricketing hero. 
    • Victoria Beckham, the wife of footballer David Beckham, has successfully migrated and developed a huge following from the world of pop music to fashion and business. 
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder and film star became a very long-serving Governor of California. 
    • And in December 2011 the Russian Duma lower house of parliament welcomed three newly elected members: 'Playboy Russia' Covergirl Maria Kozhevnikova, boxer Nikolai Valuyev, and tennis player Marat Safin.

Many of these examples are not leaders in a traditional sense, but they have commanded/do command a significant following. They influence other people's behaviour and thinking. They do so largely because of their relationship with their followers, within which the vital element and source of the leader's 'power' is the special quality that the followers project onto the 'leader'.

What all this tells us is that charismatic leadership is very much dependent on the perceptions and needs of followers, especially followers who are impressed or seduced by powerful human images of success, capability, achievement, etc. There is a need for many people to follow this sort of ideal image. The decision to follow leaders like this has relatively lower dependence on a reasoned analysis of what the leader will do - it is far more driven by how the leader makes the followers feel.

It is not surprising given the subjective and emotional drivers involved, that charismatic leadership offers potentially big risks for followers, and also to other people who may be affected by such a vast, energised, and emotionally-charged following.

Dangers and Risks of Charismatic Leadership

Here are examples of the risks associated with charismatic leadership:

  1. Charismatic leadership - probably more than any other sort of leadership style, philosophy, model, or any other leadership method - can be used for evil or unethical purposes. Examples throughout history up to modern times are sadly plentiful.
  2. Charismatic leadership can create dependency among followers. This may cause followers to assume that the leader and supporting team have all the answers, and so followers take less responsibility for themselves and for (perhaps vital) initiatives. This effect ironically threatens charismatic leaders, when, lacking innovation and responsibility in the ranks of the followers, organisational aims are increasingly missed, group effectiveness and results reduce, and so the leader's credibility suffers, together with the wellbeing of the dependent followers.
  3. Charismatic leadership can encourage a belief among followers that the leader is infallible. No one questions the leader's authority or judgement or decisions, even when seen to be wrong. And so the group effort fails.
  4. Charismatic leadership is more likely to produce early group/organisational failures - because the charismatic leader is actually incapable or out of his/her depth.
  5. Other examples can be seen wherever a leader's power is based chiefly on a specialness projected onto the leader by followers. These situations perhaps teach us more about the inadequacies of followers, than the inadequacies of their leaders. 
The world is full of needy easily impressed people, and so charismatic leaders will probably continue to rise to power for a very long while, if only for relatively short periods and often with unhappy consequences.

Charisma does, however, have a part to play in effective leadership when we view it as a genuinely positive quality of the leader, rather than a superficially 'special' quality projected by a group of followers. To understand this it is useful to redefine charisma.

Charismatic Leadership and 'Presence'

James Scouller says in The Three Levels of Leadership that charisma is not the same as 'presence'. He defines charisma as: 

  •   "A combination of outer charm, power and persuasiveness."

Scouller points out that a leader may appear charismatic largely through skilful acting, and describes this quality as an outer image lacking a deeper core. He contrasts this with 'presence', which he defines as: "An inner sense of wholeness with an outer reflection. 

  • Leaders with presence may be charismatic in style, but equally, they may be quiet or contemplative. 
  • Leaders who rely on charisma alone - that is, without presence - lack the depth, resilience and capacity for wisdom, which we see in leaders whose charisma flows from their underlying presence."

Overlap with Other Leadership Models/Styles

There is obviously an overlap between the transformational leadership and charismatic leadership styles where the transforming leader is also charismatic. The two styles, however, are quite different. 

  • The transforming leader's focus is, by definition, on positive, moral change. 
  • Charismatic leaders may not want to change anything - they may want to preserve the status quo - and, as we've seen, they may also use their power for immoral aims. 
  • Somewhat obviously, where a charismatic leader behaves also with narcissistic tendencies (very selfish, self-admiring and craving admiration of others) then Charismatic leadership overlaps or may equate to narcissistic leadership, which is explained next.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.