The Basic Idea
Think about the CEO of your company – or the CEOs of your friends, family members, or famous companies. What characteristics do they share? What makes them appealing?
Leaders need to ensure that their employees are engaged, motivated, and respect their authority. They also need to have a positive public appearance. Since a lot of our opinions are formed on perceptions and impressions, one effective leadership style is charismatic leadership.
Charismatic leadership refers to leaders with confidence, a clear vision, strong communication skills, and an attuned empathy and emotional capacity.
We’re all familiar with Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I have a dream…”. He is an example of a leader who used charisma to inspire and influence his followers, which enabled him to mobilize change. His ability to clearly convey his beliefs and elicit an emotional response is why he is regarded as a highly successful leader.
Since charismatic leadership can have such a positive and lasting effect, understanding the theory surrounding charismatic leadership can help leaders in any field mobilize people towards change.
Theory, meet practice
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Legitimate Authority: A kind of authority that is entitled to have its rules and values accepted and followed by others. Examples of legitimate authority include parents, the law, and the government.2
Charismatic Leadership: A form of legitimate authority that derives its authority from others’ trust in the personality and actions of the leader. Their charisma makes people trust them and follow their ideals.
Traditional Leadership: A form of legitimate authority that derives its authority from a society’s pre-existing norms. The fact that the leader follows and reinforces these norms makes people abide by their ruling.
Legal-Rational Leadership: A form of legitimate authority that derives its authority from the law. These leaders reinforce bureaucracy and the law, such as state authority.
Great Man Theory: The belief that great leaders are born, not made.
The term “charisma” initially had a religious connotation. It referred to a gift or power bestowed on an individual by God.3
However, in 1922, German sociologist Max Weber borrowed the term and used it to refer to a particular kind of political leadership style that mirrored the effect that prophets had over their followers. As Weber continued his investigation, though, the term began to denote a particular kind of personality. In 1968, Weber published a book titled The Three Types of Legitimate Rule, which quickly became popular and concretized the new meaning of the term charisma. In The Three Types of Legitimate Rule, Weber outlined three kinds of legitimate authority (authority whose decisions and rules are accepted and followed by others): traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic.2
“Traditional” legitimate authority is when a leader derives their authority from tradition and order. This leader champions the pre-existing norms in a society, which leads others to elect them. Traditional legitimate authority can also be inherited: kings and queens are respected and followed because, according to tradition, we should follow them.4
“Legal-rational” legitimate authority is when a leader relies on rules for people to follow them. People are obedient because the rules exist and are enforced by this individual–not because that individual has any unique personal characteristics. For example, judges have a strong influence on society due to their legal-rational authority.4
“Charismatic” legitimate authority is easier to achieve for the average person – it is not dependent upon a position or birthright. Charismatic leaders instead rely on their personalities. People end up trusting and following them because of their confidence and intrapersonal skills.4
Weber’s identification of charismatic leadership was one of the first times that someone had identified that personal characteristics mattered when it came to leadership style. Previously, people believed in the Great Man Theory, which said that anyone who was in a position of power was born to be in a position of power.
In 1976, organizational psychologist Robert J. House investigated the values and characteristics charismatic leaders share. He argued that charismatic leaders use impression management tactics, including exuding confidence and highlighting successes, to make themselves appear in a positive light. They appear trustworthy and competent, and they articulate their vision clearly. They are excellent communicators, expressing confidence that their followers can meet their expectations, and they set examples through their own behavior. Unlike traditional and legal-relational kinds of leaders, charismatic leaders tap into people’s hopes and beliefs to be successful.5
As studies into leadership have continued, there has been a great deal of interest in how and why charismatic leadership works. Unlike traditional or legal-rational types of legitimate authority, charismatic authority is accessible to all: if you hone in on some important personal characteristics, you can be a great leader. Someone with fewer resources can still have a powerful effect over others. So, here are some characteristics you need to be a charismatic leader:
Humility: instead of tooting their own horn, charismatic leaders emphasize the value of their followers and employees. This helps followers feel loyalty towards them.6
Confidence: confidence is key. People will feel more secure following someone who is clear about who they are and what they think.6
Compassion: charismatic leaders do not need to rely on their unique position in society to hold authority, unlike a king or a judge. Compassion allows them to connect to their followers.6
Good communication: strong communication skills are essential, as charismatic leadership is all about transmitting ideas that the public can get excited about.6
By embodying these characteristics, charismatic leaders can encourage collaboration, motivate and inspire, make others feel heard, foment a sense of unity, and collectively, lead a movement towards positive change.7
Charismatic leadership, since it need not follow rules, tradition, and order, is also viewed as a revolutionary power. Those who demonstrate charismatic leadership often go against the grain, using their bravery and charisma to create societal change.
While charismatic leadership theory focuses on the positive influences of a charismatic leader, it also accounts for this style’s potential downsides..
Charisma can lull people into trusting a leader without any evidence that their leadership produces results. We’ve all been schmoozed by a great salesman whose charm makes us buy things we later regret. Similarly, there are some concerns that people follow charismatic leaders into bad, or even harmful, choices. Charisma can help gain a following, but it needs to be backed up by hard work.8
Part of being a charismatic leader is an ability to convince others of one’s beliefs. Since charismatic leaders can embolden their followers, we have to hope that their values are moral and well-intentioned. Otherwise, we can quickly slip from a charismatic leader to a cult leader: someone who persuades others into worshipping them and causing harm to others. While Martin Luther King is an example of a positive charismatic leader, whose ideals focused on making the world a more equitable place, others have used their charisma for evil.
It is also easy for charismatic leaders to become narcissists and begin to care only about themselves and their views. They might see themselves as above the law and become self-serving.9
Additionally, charismatic leadership theory has been criticized for its unidirectionality. It looks only at the behaviors and characteristics that the leader is exhibiting, and doesn’t focus on how or why it resonates with followers. Leader Membership Exchange Theory, alternatively, assumes that leadership is a two-way relationship between managers and employees, and takes a closer look at the relationship between leaders and their followers. This approach to leadership might present a more holistic understanding of what makes an effective leader.
One critique of charismatic leadership theory is that it is difficult to define charisma, let alone identify which traits make someone a charismatic leader. To address this, organizational psychologist Tom Sy and his colleagues Calen Horton and Ronald Riggio conducted a study in 2018 that suggested emotion is the prominent variable in achieving charisma.10
Sy, Horton, and Riggio hypothesized that the effectiveness of charismatic leadership lies in the fact that these leaders elicit powerful emotions within their followers. By exhibiting a positive attitude and emotional orientation, people identify charisma within a leader: they feel awe and admiration, causing them to trust these leaders. “Awe” and “admiration,” in turn, are part of a larger type of emotional response – moral emotions – which regulate an individual’s behavior. So, Sy, Horton, and Riggio deduced that it is by triggering an emotional response that charismatic leaders influence others and gain legitimate authority.10
Through their analysis of charismatic leadership theory, Sy, Horton, and Riggio came up with a five-step process through which charismatic leadership becomes effective10:
- Leader Emotion Elicitation
Leaders use their communication skills to elicit targeted emotions. Depending on the leader’s goal, the emotions they hope to arouse can differ. For example, someone trying to mobilize a protest would need to elicit feelings of anger; someone trying to sell a product would need to elicit trust.
1. Follower Emotion Response
If charismatic leaders are successful in stage one, followers will feel the elicited emotions.
2. Leader Channeling Behaviors
Leaders act to ensure that the emotions felt by their followers lead to action. They transfer those emotions into actions for their followers to take.
3. Follower Action
If leaders have successfully channelled their followers’ emotions, their followers will take action.
4. Action outcomes
The final stage is the resolution of charismatic leadership. It encompasses what happens as a result of the followers’ actions, and if they were successful in bringing about the leader’s goals.
By proposing a method through which charismatic leadership functions, Sy, Horton and Riggio hoped to understand why charismatic leadership is effective, and provide a means through which to measure the success of this leadership style.10
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One component of charismatic leadership is humility, which means that these kinds of leaders emphasize the value their employees bring to the company. However, it can be dangerous for leaders to emphasize the value of some employees and not others. High-potential programs that identify employees with leadership potential help those employees thrive, but cause others to become unmotivated. In this article, our contributors Natasha Ouslis and Zad El-Makkaou explore the benefits of high-potential programs and give advice on how to make them fairer.
- Meah, A. (2018, September 6). 20 Inspirational Quotes On Charisma. AwakenTheGreatnessWithin. https://www.awakenthegreatnesswithin.com/20-inspirational-quotes-on-charisma/
- Tyler, T. R. (2001). Compliance and Obedience: Legal. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 2440-2445). https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/02886-2
- Definition of charisma. (n.d.). Dictionary by Merriam-Webster. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/charisma
- Maboloc, C. R. (2015, May 29). Max Weber’s 3 types of authority. INQUIRER.net. https://opinion.inquirer.net/85293/max-webers-3-types-of-authority
- Yukl, G. (1993). A retrospective on Robert House’s “1976 theory of charismatic leadership” and recent revisions. The Leadership Quarterly, 4(3-4), 367-373. https://doi.org/10.1016/1048-9843(93)90041-q
- 10 Charismatic Leadership Characteristics. (2021, February 18). Y Scouts. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://yscouts.com/10-charismatic-leadership-characteristics/
- Lee, S. (2020, July 30). What is charismatic leadership? Torch. https://torch.io/blog/what-is-charismatic-leadership/
- (2016, April 24). What is Charismatic Leadership? Teamwork Definition Information. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://teamworkdefinition.com/charismaticleadership/
- Gayan, G. (2020, December 22). What is Charismatic Leadership? Definition, Characteristics, and Benefits! Vantage Circle HR Blog. https://blog.vantagecircle.com/charismatic-leadership/
- Sy, T., Horton, C., & Riggio, R. (2018). Charismatic leadership: Eliciting and channeling follower emotions. The Leadership Quarterly, 29(1), 58-69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.12.008