Charismatic Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples
“Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can’t be two people. Instead you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people.” – Lee Iacocca
You’ve probably met a person who oozed of charisma. The almost-indescribable characteristic is something we associate with other leaders, while we consider some people simply lacking it. More often than not, charismatic leaders are considered powerful orators with a clear vision.
But what is charismatic leadership about? In this guide, we’ll explore the theories that gave birth to this leadership style from Weber to House. We’ll also look at the core elements of charismatic leadership theory and analyze the characteristics leaders need to possess in order to be considered charismatic. Finally, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of the style before examining a few examples of the style.
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENT CONTEXT OF CHARISMATIC LEADERSHIP
Charisma is a trait often associated with leaders and the world is full of examples of people being described as charismatic leaders. The term charismatic comes from the ancient Greek word charis, which means grace, kindness and life. Charismatic people are considered as graceful and virtuous. The idea of using one’s charisma and influence in order to lead is not a new way of looking at leadership, although the theories around it are rather recent.
In this section, we’ll explore the idea of charismatic leadership through its past and present contexts.
The historical context
The idea of a strong and noble leader, who relies on personal characteristics, has been present in history. People have attributed and associated great personalities with the ability to rule in a good manner ever since the dawn of time.
In terms of crafting a proper leadership theory, the two biggest influencing theories behind charismatic theory have been developed by Max Weber and Robert J. House.
Max Weber’s charismatic leadership
The charismatic theory’s driving force is Max Weber’s study on political obligation. The German sociologist explored the reasons people follow authority and the findings were published posthumously in 1922 in Economy and Society.
Weber moved away from the classical thinking that authority is achieved through the three routes:
- Self-interest – You obey for material or economic gain
- Fear – You follow the rules because you don’t want the punishment
- Habit – You obey simply out of the socialization of authority
Instead, Weber thought people follow a leader or a state because they evaluate the authority and perceive it good, right or just form of power. Therefore, the leader’s legitimacy is subjective to each subordinate.
From the above ideas, Weber distinguished three models of legitimate leadership, summed up in the below image:
Weber’s idea of charisma was value-free and more about the appearance of charisma rather than making specific value judgments. He writes in the book how charisma “knows no formal and regulated appointment or dismissal, no career, advancement, or salary, no supervisory or appeals body, no local or purely technical jurisdiction, and no permanent institutions in the manner of bureaucratic agencies”. Charismatic leaders are almost savior like and people follow them as they are perceived to put things right.
Charismatic leadership relies on three components in Weber’s theory. There is the psychological dimension, which refers to the inner qualities of the leader. Weber talks about the trait being a “gift” of the leader, claiming it could be either a divine trait or a specific physical or mental state of being. But since charisma to Weber, is value-free and created by the subordinates’ assumptions, there is no detailed explanation on the origins of charisma.
The second dimension is about the social aspect. Charismatic leadership might not stem purely out of one’s inner being, but have a social source. This could be the cultural influence of society, family, work or even education. Charisma essentially takes on a traditional form and legitimizes its source. The impersonal nature of charisma implies that it can be taught, according to Weber.
Finally, Weber’s theory also has a relational dimension between the leader and the subordinate. According to Weber, charisma is the “affectual relationship between leader and followers developing as the historical product of the interaction between person and situation”. A leader has to prove his or her worth and the charisma in order to continue to enjoy legitimacy. Charismatic leadership is therefore relational because the subordinates can withdraw their support, leading the leader without legitimacy to rule.
Interestingly, Weber’s charismatic leader carried its own demise and the legitimate authority of a charismatic leader was something he didn’t think could last. This was because it changed the system it was operating in and removed the traditional justification of authority around it. According to Weber, charismatic leadership would be hard to routinize and therefore, it created succession issues in organizations or the state.
Interested in learning why we as humans are prone to falling for charismatic leaders? Watch this TED talk.
Robert J. House’s charismatic leadership
Weber’s ideas of charismatic leadership were theoretical and the conversation that followed around the topic tended to be speculative in nature. In 1976, Robert J. House published his working paper A 1976 theory of charismatic leadership, which aimed to move the theory to a more testable concept. House moved the charismatic leadership theory more towards a psychological explanation, rather than a sociological or political science theory of power.
House’s main argument was that charismatic leadership is rooted in personal and behavioral characteristics and the leaders with these qualities can inspire subordinates through appropriate articulation of the organizational vision. Therefore, it follows the similar notion of Weber that charismatic leaders don’t receive authority out of fear or financial gain, but out of emotional excitement.
To communicate the vision to subordinates, charismatic leaders need to showcase high levels of self-confidence, dominance, influence and strong conviction. Furthermore, certain situational and organization factors can help boost the leadership’s appearance. These assumptions and characteristics will be discussed further in the following sections.
The main takeaway from House’s theory is that charismatic leadership should not be defined solely in terms of the effects it has on followers. Instead, House looked more towards the behaviors and the situational factors that influence the effectiveness of charismatic leaders.
The modern context
The above two theories have largely shaped the conversation around charismatic leadership, providing the theory with context and testable characteristics. The two theories, along with other research on the leadership model, have revived the trait-based approach to leadership.
Since charismatic leadership is linked with personal traits and the transformation of subordinates, the current conversation around the model often links it with transformational leadership theory. Both of these theories seek radical changes around the organizational structure they operate in, yet there are certain important differences between the two.
While charisma can improve the effectiveness of leadership, transformational leaders don’t necessarily have to be perceived as charismatic in order to rule efficiently. Furthermore, transformational leadership always has change at the heart of it, whereas charismatic leadership might not be interested in changing the operational structure of the organization.
Nonetheless, in current literature, charismatic leadership has assumed a more benevolent approach to leadership. Instead of focusing on a strong moral conviction and the personality traits of the leader, the inclusion of transformational elements has added a behavior element to the theory.
Aside from linking charismatic leadership with other leadership styles, such as transformational and inspirational leadership, the focus has also moved even more towards the emotional, inspirational and symbolic aspects of the leadership’s ability to influence. In 2007, J. C. Pastor, M. Mayo and B. Shamir’s research found the emotional responses of the subordinates influence the perception of the leader as charismatic. Furthermore, it isn’t purely about the leader’s apparent qualities, but the characteristics of the subordinates can influence how effective charismatic leaders are.
Ronald E. Riggio, PhD and professor of leadership and organizational psychology, summed up the current idea of charismatic leadership well in his 2012 article. Riggio defined charismatic leaders as “individuals who are both verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to followers on a deep, emotional level.” Charismatic leadership is about creating a vision and captivating people emotionally with the message.
THE CORE ELEMENTS OF CHARISMATIC LEADERSHIP
The above touched on the context and approach to charismatic leadership. It’s now time to consider the core elements of the leadership model and how they drive the above ideas forward.
Organizational and situational assumptions
House’s 1976 essay on charismatic leadership outlined key assumptions regarding the leadership model. The assumptions rely on the idea that charismatic leadership relies on the behavioral, situational and organizational factors.
First, charismatic leadership requires the leader to showcase behaviors, which create an impression of competence and success. In short, the leadership requires a strong goal articulation. D. Berlew wrote in Leadership and Organization Excitement in 1974 that, “The first requirement for…charismatic leadership is a common or shared vision for what the future could be.“ A good example of this would be Martin Luther Kings, “I have a dream”. The speech and idea provided subordinates a vision of the future, the leader would want them to accomplish together. According to House, the goal articulation is more often about ideology rather than pragmatism.
For successful goal articulation to appear, a charismatic leadership theory requires the use of motive arousal. This means the goal and vision put forward by the leader must create an emotional appeal and spark off the right type of motivational response. House points out to the example of military leaders, who use authoritarian symbolism and images of the enemy in order to excite the followers. He gives the example of the US military leader, Patton, who addressed recruits “against the background of a large American flag, and dressed with medals of his accomplishments and wearing a shining helmet displaying the four stars indicating the status of general.”
The motive arousal aspect of charismatic leadership requires an understanding and an analysis of the task and the subordinates’ need for achievement, affiliation and power. The effectiveness to accomplish tasks can therefore be manipulated by the leader’s ability to arouse the right motives. House summarized studies, which had found the following assumptions:
The correct motive arousal
|The need for achievement|
|The need for power|
|The need for affiliation|
Finally, charismatic leadership requires specific situational determinants. For Weber, charismatic leadership is born out of a stressful situation. The vision outlined by the leader is likely something difficult or impossible to achieve, yet which creates the right motive arousal in leaders, enforcing the idea of the charismatic leader as the ‘savior’. An example could be Mahatma Ghandi in India during the Indian independence movement. In a business environment a failing company might benefit from a charismatic leader who creates a vision of a better future for subordinates.
But stressful disasters are not the only situational determinant charismatic leadership can use as an advantage. Edward Shils’ 1965 paper Charisma, Order, and Status identified the formal institutions of society, with large amounts of power, being something that could be perceived charismatic. In essence, the idea of the “awe-inspiring quality of power” can integrate a vision and therefore, become seen as charismatic.
For the above characteristics of charismatic leadership to work efficiently, the behavior of the leader must be aligned with the assumptions. Charismatic leadership model emphasizes the behavioral assumptions as the key.
As mentioned in the previous section, House outlined the four qualities of a charismatic leader. These were:
- Strong desire to influence others.
- Strong sense of one’s own moral values.
Interestingly, charismatic leaders are not just interested or relying on showcasing the above qualities themselves, but rather they behave in a way that supports role-modeling behavior. Essentially this means charismatic leadership wants subordinates to adopt the behaviour of the leader.
Role-modeling has been shown by studies to have a strong effect on influencing other people. An authoritative figure can get subjects to administer pain to other people and people can adopt biased or racist attitudes from leaders. But naturally, role-modeling could be used for positive change and behavior as well. In a corporate environment, role-modeling could work as a method of improving employee motivation. According to House’s analysis, “leaders can have an effect on the values (or valences) subordinates’ attach to the outcomes of their effort as well as their expectations”.
From the above idea follows another crucial behavioral aspect of the charismatic leader. The leader should focus on engaging in behaviors, which create the impression of competence and success. Weber mentioned in his book how charismatic leaders are required to prove their power to the subordinates. While accomplishments are generally the easiest way to do this, the idea of appearance will also help charismatic leaders. This appearance assumption links closely with the above idea of goal articulation.
A very nice chat around how to become a better leader.
The best way to create the impression is often through high expectations and strong self-confidence. Studies have shown your self-esteem level and the expectation of being able to achieve a goal relate to motivation and goal attainment. In charismatic leadership, the leader has a role of improving the subordinate’s self-esteem in order to improve organizational effectiveness.
A leader must not only set high-expectations, but also show confidence in the subordinate’s ability to get things done. The behavioral assumption is associated with the above motive arousal. As shown earlier, specific tasks require the leader to use specific motivational influences in order to get the best out of subordinates. Furthermore, House drew two hypotheses out of the assumptions:
- If leaders set specific and high expectations, then the goals of subordinates are clearer.
- If the leader shows more confidence in the subordinate’s ability to achieve those goals, then the person will perceive them more attainable.
Therefore, charismatic leadership works most efficiently when leaders are able to instill confidence and self-esteem to subordinates, which means subordinates are more inclined to achieve objectives and thus trust the leader further.
THE QUALITIES OF CHARISMATIC LEADER
Since charismatic leadership is heavily focused on the behaviour and personality of the leader, it comes as no surprise that the qualities and traits required of a charismatic leader are at the centre of the theory. We’ve already touched upon some of the traits through House’s theory (dominant, self-confident, self-assured and strong conviction), but further research has identified other characteristics as well.
After examining the key traits of a charismatic leader, we’ll also consider the steps you should take if you’d like to use this leadership model.
The key characteristics
In 1988, Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo published Charismatic Leadership, which outlined the key characteristics of a charismatic leader. The findings have been repeatedly shown to be accurate in a number of other similar studies, such as Robert House and Jane Howell’s 1992 paper Personality and Charismatic Leadership.
One thing charismatic leadership emphasizes is the nature of your charisma. While it might seem charisma is a ‘natural’ quality you either have or don’t have, the reality is that many charismatic qualities can be learned and reinforced.
Martin Luther King dreamt of a society where everyone is equal, Gandhi wanted different religions to live in peace in India and Sir Winston Churchill wanted the British to stay resilient during the war. Every charismatic leader has a vision – they are able to look beyond the horizon and imagine a different way of doing things. Obviously, it doesn’t mean everyone has to imagine a society-wide change or movement, but you have to have a vision of what you want to achieve or what you want the organization you lead to accomplish.
Being a visionary means being open to chance and understanding that constant improvement is required for progress. You need to embark on a road of self-improvement, where you are constantly looking to expand your skills and learning things beyond your comfort zone. In addition, you need to listen to other people and understand how their experiences have shaped them. If you can combine your understanding of the world, with the experiences of others, you can visualise new solutions and approaches to solving things.
Visionary people are both dreamers and doers. You want to spend enough time thinking about the world and the problems you face. But you don’t want to be caught daydreaming, while other people fix the problems.
This video shows you how to develop your vision statement and inspire your subordinates.
Charismatic people are good communicators. In order to get people on your side – to understand your vision and to believe in it – you have to be able to share the message loud and clear. If you aren’t articulate, your subordinates won’t be able to understand what you are envisioning.
There are two key aspects of articulation in terms of charismatic leadership. First, it simply means being a better communicator and being able to talk about complex issues to people in a way they understand. In the business world, the key is to explain the why, the how, and the when. You need to explain the reason or the vision behind the action, clarify what is needed in order to get to the objective and ensure people know how fast this all should be accomplished.
But the second aspect of articulation and communication relates to the understanding of your subordinates. Charismatic leadership requires you to be able to read people and select the right motivations for inspiring them. Therefore, you need to be able to analyze your audience and select the right communication style for each occasion.
If you’d like to improve your own communication abilities, especially in terms of getting your message across, watch the below YouTube clip. On it, Julian Treasure explains how to speak in a way that ensures people listen.
Charismatic leaders must be sensitive, both in reading people’s emotions and ambitions, but also in showing them compassion and empathy. As mentioned above, you must be able to sense the other person’s expectations and needs in order to properly approach them with your vision. In short, you need to be able to sense the mood and be able to adjust to it.
In addition, you must also show humility and compassion. When you listen to people, you need to convince them you are there to help and you understand what the person is saying. Even if you can’t do what the person might want you to do, you need to be able to convince them to work in a specific way and make them feel like its their best interest as well.
The charismatic leader who can show compassion towards subordinates is the leader that gets people on his or her side. Since you require subordinates to buy into your vision, you need to show respect and empathy towards them. People follow leaders who make them feel good and important, instead of someone who doesn’t listen to them.
Just as you need to be a visionary, you must be willing to take risks as well. Because you are trying to obtain a visionary goal, something transformative and different, you won’t have a paved out road ahead of you. In order to accomplish great things, charismatic leadership requires you to put yourself on the line.
Risk-taking means two things. First, as a leader, you are accountable for any problems that might arise. You aren’t afraid to step out of the way if things don’t work out and you won’t try to place the blame elsewhere.
But in addition, you aren’t afraid of challenges either. You understand that each challenge will bring about positive things, whether or not you accomplish what you set out to do. You are ready to give it your best shot because you can see the rewards of accomplishing things, while realizing failure isn’t the end of the world.
In business, risk-taking isn’t the same as gambling. Risk-takers don’t just rush into things and hope for the best and neither do charismatic leaders. You understand the importance of analyzing tasks and the options ahead of you, but you are willing to take calculated risks if the situation calls for it.
Listen to Stephen Kelly (CEO of Sage) on what he has to say on taking smart risks.
Finally, charismatic leaders tend to be creative. In order to be more visionary, you naturally need a healthy dose of creativity. You must be able to think outside of the box in order to create meaningful change in the organization.
Creativity is further linked to the charismatic leadership’s idea of strong conviction. You need to be able to speak with conviction – meaning that you need to use creative images, rhetoric and messaging in order to get others to buy into your vision.
If you’d like to improve your ability to be more creative and to stand out from the crowd, you should try these five scientifically proven tips (BBC Science):
- Change how you do things – Altering your daily routines can help you because more innovative.
- Removing distractions – You should try to create an environment around you which doesn’t have distractions – visual or audio -.
- Spend time on mundane tasks – You can spark your creative mind by engaging in tasks, which require less thinking.
- Improvising and taking risks – Risk-taking can boost creativity together with improvisation. If you can play an instrument or you like drawing, spend some time doing it without an objective in mind.
- Allowing your mind to wander – You shouldn’t be afraid to just sit around and allow your mind to think freely.
How to become a charismatic leader
One thing charismatic leadership emphasizes is the nature of your charisma. While it might seem charisma is a ‘natural’ quality you either have or don’t have, the reality is that many charismatic qualities can be learned and reinforced. Joyce Newman, president of the Newman Group, told in a Forbes interview, “We are not born charismatic – we cultivate it in many ways”. Furthermore, Joyce pointed out that becoming charismatic is a “trial and error process” and “once you have your charismatic status, you can lose it”.
In his 1989 book The Charismatic Leader: Behind the Mystique of Exceptional Leadership, Jay Conger proposed a four-step model for charismatic leadership. The model is a good guide for anyone looking to improve his or her charismatic leader characteristics.
Step 1: Regularly assessing your vision and the environment for achieving it
First, you need to create a vision, which fits the current environment. If you are working in an organization, you want to understand where the company is heading and where it could be heading with a new vision. You must understand the different parts making the vision a reality, such as what type of employees do you need, what must the organization focus on and who might be able to help you out.
Once you have formulated a vision and a framework for achieving the vision, you need to outline to others. But even after the vision is out in the open, you need to have the clarity to keep assessing your environment to ensure the vision is attainable. While you might not change the end objective, you might need to adjust the framework on how you get to the goal
Step 2: Improving your ability to communicate this vision
You need to be able to articulate your vision to the subordinates and other stakeholders in a clear and concise manner. The above points on characteristics should give you tips on improving your communication skills. But there are two other strategies you need to focus on: motive arousal and persuasive language.
In order for subordinates to buy into your vision, you need to find what motivates them to perform the required tasks. Notice that in an organization, different people might find different motives appealing. For example, the idea of more power might appeal to middle management who are driven and ambitious. On the other hand, employees with less motivation and ambition might find a vision of financial gain as motivating
Your language must be persuasive. Again, understanding the person’s motivations help, but you also need to utilize role-modeling for inspiring the person to act. Setting an example can act as a powerful motivator for subordinates.
Step 3: Creating a trustworthy and committed environment
Coercion is not an effective part of charismatic leadership. Instead, you should focus on building relationships that are based on trust. This can lead to the creation of a committed environment where subordinates are inspired to work hard towards the goals.
You need to be able to ensure the vision you’ve set out is viable. This means you need to be accountable for the actions the organization takes, you must be willing to take risks and you need to showcase high levels of expertise. These will help you create more trust, not only in your vision, but also on yourself as a leader.
Step 4: Achieving the objectives
The final step is about achieving the vision you have set out using the chore tactics of charismatic leadership. This includes role-modeling and empowering your subordinates with motive arousal. Charismatic leadership provides the ideas and tools to lead people, but it also understands the differences in the situations. Therefore, achieving the vision is the key, not following a rigid set of rules in order to get there.
Finally, watch the below TEDx talk by John Antonakis on the topic of why charisma matters in today’s world.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF CHARISMATIC LEADERSHIP
Charismatic leadership is among the leadership theories that can be both a blessing and a curse to an organization. A strong vision with emotional influences can be a force for positive change, such as the example of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, but it can lead to darkness as well.
Advantages of charismatic leadership
As mentioned above, charismatic leadership can at its best, be an inspirational style to lead. A successful, charismatic leader is able to create a vision, which attract subordinates to the cause. The ability to motivate and empower people through this vision can eventually lead to more success.
Consider an example of a failing business. A charismatic leader can utilize the tools of charismatic leadership and create a vision of an organization that leads the industry. The message of the better future, and the confidence the leader shows towards subordinates can guarantee the employers are motivated to work together towards these goals. As the examples and research data above shows, the right type of motivation and vision can boost people’s ability to get the job done more effectively.
Furthermore, the shared vision provides another big advantage of the theory: better workplace cohesion. Since everyone in the organization is aware of the same mission and objectives, everyone is essentially working to achieve the same goal. No one is gaining anything more, as the motivation isn’t about punishments or financial gains – rather; the whole company shares the same objective. Knowing that everyone is essentially looking forward to the same achievement can create a stronger sense of togetherness and unity.
The visionary way to lead can lead to better results because it ignites people’s passion. It’s hard to be a charismatic leader without strong convictions and therefore, the leader is passionate about getting things done. As many entrepreneurs tend to say, “it’s the passion that gets you up every morning”. In addition to the passionate approach to doing things, charismatic leadership also encourages risk-taking and thinking outside of the box. Together, these qualities can drive change in an organization and have a meaningful impact on the operational efficiency of the company.
Since the emphasis is on achieving the objectives and working towards the shared goal, charismatic leadership tends to flourish learning behavior. Mistakes are not used for punishment and disasters are not shrugged under the carpet. Instead, charismatic leaders and therefore the subordinates examine the mistakes and learn from them in order to move forward. For a business, learning from past mistakes is a crucial part of avoiding the issue second time around.
The clarity in the objectives and vision are especially beneficial in situations where a company might be facing a crisis. As House and Weber argued in their theories, charismatic leadership works especially well in crises. If work morale is low and the company is lacking direction, a strong, charismatic leader can provide the organization a needed boost and positive vision for the future. The focus on individuals and their self-esteem will also provide an instant boost in employee morale.
Overall, the above can boost employee moral and productivity. The workplace can become a more invigorating and exciting place to be, with the possibility of larger social change on the horizon. The company’s profitability, productivity and longevity can therefore improve.
Disadvantages of charismatic leadership
But as we briefly mentioned at the start of the section, charismatic leadership is not always transformational in a positive manner. The vision, envisaged by the charismatic leader, is not always universally positive and in the darkest examples of the human history, it can be deadly. If you consider the essence of charismatic leadership – dominance, confidence, strong convictions and the ability to get followers on your side – then one example of charismatic leader from history could be Adolf Hitler. He was able to paint a vision of a future for people, which they took at face value.
Unlike ethical leadership, charismatic leadership doesn’t make judgments on whether the vision is good or sustainable. Therefore, there isn’t much room for inner moral conflicts within the leadership theory. The problem is that a charismatic leader might be driven by self-interest or poor judgment, instead of showcasing values that cherish other people’s wellbeing.
In a less-sinister manner, charismatic leadership can slip into arrogance or tunnel vision. The leader, along with his or her followers, can simply focus on the vision, without re-evaluating or re-examining its validity or attainability. For an organisation, this could be devastating, as resources might be better spent in a different manner.
Since charismatic leadership doesn’t work without the support of subordinates, the obedience levels of subordinates can go on unchallenged. In essence, this means the leadership model’s apparent strength can simply be down to “yes-men” around the leader. Instead of questioning or challenging the leader’s ideas, subordinates merely follow the orders.
Finally, charismatic leadership is based on the relationship between the leader and his or her subordinates. If, and when, the leader moves on from the organization, the company might suffer consequently because a strong leadership base disappears with him or her. The organization either needs a new charismatic leader, who has to spend time establishing his or her relationship with the subordinates, or implement a wholly new leadership structure into the organization. As the subordinates have based their trust in the vision of the charismatic leader, there is no leadership development within the organization to guarantee the next generation of leaders are able to take over.
EXAMPLES OF CHARISMATIC LEADERS
As mentioned in the previous sections, charismatic leadership has plenty of historic examples in a range of fields. There are the political examples of Martin Luther King and the other extreme example of Hitler. But you also have charismatic leaders in the field of social justice and business.
The below examples will hopefully outline the characteristics of charismatic leaders and the ideas of the model in a tangible manner.
Mother Theresa might not be a conventional example of a leader, but she perfectly fits the definition of a charismatic leader. Mother Theresa, who was born in Macedonia, became a Roman Catholic nun and started working with the poor.
She left her teaching position at the St. Mary’s School for Girls in 1946 in order to start serving the poor in the slums of Calcutta. In the 1950s and 1960s, she established different facilities in the slums to help the poor survive disease and malnutrition. Later, she also opened charities elsewhere in the world – all helping the poor.
Mother Theresa was dedicated to a single cause and she had a vision to help the lives of those that don’t have much. She inspired others to follow her example and she dedicated her life to empowering the less fortunate. In essence, she showed what good charismatic leadership could achieve.
Mother Theresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” This highlights one of the important parts of charismatic leadership: having others following you. Without the followers buying into your vision, you won’t succeed as a leader.
But as we’ve mentioned above, charismatic leadership is not always a force for good. For all the world’s Mother Theresas, there are examples of leaders who’ve used their charisma for doing bad. Charles Manson is one such example.
In 1969, the US uncovered a cult called The Family, when the police found nine bodies in Los Angeles. The cult’s leader was a charismatic Charles Mansion who had managed to captivate the attention of young girls, only to end up killing them.
Interestingly, Manson’s leadership skills and charismatic nature wasn’t just natural characteristics. He did, in fact, take a course on leadership and self-improvement during his time in prison. His ability to manipulate and influence people came from a highly popular book: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Manson used the learned techniques of promising people things, boosting their confidence just slightly and creating a vision of the better future, where he was the only saviour. Unfortunately for the world, his vision was dark and involved taking the lives of innocent people. He took proven leadership qualities and turned them into a sinister manipulation. Yet, his example shows how charismatic leadership works when it’s efficient.
To find out more about Dale Carnegie’s book and its message, check out the below Slideshare presentation, which summarizes the ideas in the book. Despite the bad press, the book is still one of the best in the field of leadership and worth reading if you’d like to improve your communication with other people.
Jack Welch / General Electric
Charismatic leaders have also appeared in the business world. General Electric’s (GE) CEO Jack Welch is a good example of a charismatic leader. Welch had a sporting background and he used the lessons he learned as an athlete during his time in business.
After graduating from college, Welch found himself working as a chemical engineer at GE in 1960. In 1981, he became the company’s youngest CEO. His approach to his position as a CEO was about creating personal and meaningful relationships. He met with the employees and the customers, talking with them to create a positive atmosphere.
Nonetheless, his charismatic leadership style didn’t mean he avoided working towards the vision. He didn’t hesitate to cut costs, even if it meant laying off employees, because his ultimate vision was about creating a valuable and respectful business. He wanted to create an organization that would beat its rivals and in order to do this, he had to weed out mediocrity from his company. While this meant certain people had to go, it also improved the company’s communication, its development and ultimately its bottom line.
In a telling quote, Jack Welch once said, “The essence of competitiveness is liberated when we make people believe that what they think and do is important – and then get out of their way while they do it.” The idea sums nicely the essence of charismatic leadership and especially the idea of the motive arousal.
Steve Jobs / Apple
Finally, another example of a highly charismatic leader in the business world is the late Steve Jobs. Whilst Jobs was not universally liked as a leader, he was effective and persuasive – he even got the people who didn’t really like him to continue working for him.
Jobs clearly highlighted strong conviction and vision. He wanted particularly designed products, often forcing the designing team to great lengths to achieve it. He kept mentioning his key objectives and ideas in almost all of his speeches and ensured everyone in the company knew what the vision was.
Furthermore, Jobs didn’t just apply a single communication tactic with his subordinates. He changed his rhetoric and figurative language according to the audience. Just as a charismatic leader would in order to find the right motive for his or her followers to participate in the vision, he was able to sense what his crowd wanted and needed from him. A study into Jobs’ use of rhetoric, Loizos Heracleous and Laura Klaering from the Warwick Business School found leaders could take advantage of Jobs’ skills and “employ them to increase followers’ belief in their charisma as well as their effectiveness as a persuasive speaker”.
Jobs used different images and examples as part of his discussion. For example, IBM was the evil player in the game, while Apple would come and save the day – you can see the charismatic vision and motive arousal working for his favour.
Below is a clip of Steve Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, talking about Jobs’ leadership style:
Charismatic leadership is another trait-based leadership theory, which emphasizes the leader’s ability to convince the subordinates to work towards a specific vision. It’s often related to other leadership theories, especially since it relies on personal characteristics of the leader. But it is a powerful theory on its own and charismatic leaders can help create lasting changes in an organization.
The framework for charismatic leadership focuses on conviction, communication and commitment. You need to develop a strong vision and be able to motivate other people to follow you. Your qualities as a leader and your ability to create meaningful relationships with your subordinates are the carrying forces of charismatic leadership, not any specific process or structure of the organization.
Since charismatic leaders are willing to take risks and look beyond the horizon, they can have a positive impact on an organization or society. Unfortunately, the leader doesn’t necessarily need to follow a strong moral or ethical vision. History has shown us that charismatic leaders can lead subordinates astray and cause havoc while working towards their vision.
Nonetheless, the leadership theory can be an effective way to motivate people and improve the way an organization operates.