Most new leaders want to be charismatic. However, charismatic leadership is a double-edged sword. . . Here’s what you need to know.
What is a charismatic leadership style?
Charismatic leadership is a sociological concept. It was created by the German sociologist, Max Weber, in the early 20th century to be distinguished from other forms of leadership, specifically traditional and rational-legal leadership. Ultimately, the concept was developed to provide helpful insights for anyone who wants to become a better leader.
Today, the internet and social media have contributed to the rise of new charismatic leaders. Motivated by this distorted picture of reality, most new leaders consider charisma their most important, if not their only, tool – which is a bad idea.
Definition of charismatic leadership style
Max Weber defined charisma as “[a] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” He continues, “Men do not obey [the charismatic ruler] by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him.”
Supporters follow leaders for a multitude of reasons, but charisma is the most important one: it is the single criterion that defines charismatic leadership.
This definition excludes a few things most people intuitively expect from a charismatic leader:
- It is unimportant whether charismatic leaders possess the qualities that their followers attribute to them.
- The definition of charismatic leadership is unconcerned with the political goals of a leader. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were charismatic leaders, just like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.
- It is unimportant whether the majority considers a leader charismatic. It only matters what their followers think. Kim Jong-un, for example, radiates little charisma on Western people, but his followers consider him as one of the most charismatic people in history… This makes him a charismatic leader.
The history of charismatic leadership theory
As we already pointed out, the 19th and the 20th century were full of charismatic leaders. In medieval times, leadership was mostly based on tradition. Most people never met their leaders and leadership was legitimized by the divine right of kings, which is why it was both impossible and unnecessary to legitimize leadership by charisma.
The technological revolution changed that. The newspaper, radio, and TV allowed leaders to transport their charisma over long distances. Politically, this led to a fight between systems based on legal leadership (democracy) and charisma (mostly fascism).
Our current globalized world and access to social media have led to another rise in charismatic leaders. On Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, many people support leaders solely based on their charisma.
These two waves of charismatic leaders also spurred the development of charismatic leadership theory. Max Weber created his most influential work in the 1910s and 1920s. Recently, more and more sociologists have again focused on charismatic leadership.
What are the dangers of charismatic leadership?
Charismatic leadership is a potent form of leadership because it can motivate supporters to do things they would not normally do. Most of the dangers of the charismatic movement relate to this power.
It is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain their leadership. When some or all of their people question their superior leadership qualifications, they lose support more quickly than other types of leaders.
Charismatic leaders have to clearly be the best person for the job at hand – always and in any situation. This is why they often engage in a cult of personality, micro-manage, and become resistant to criticism. To maintain their superior image, they have to make all important decisions, they have to come up with all ideas, and they have to be involved in every part of the operation. They are reluctant to delegate, unable to share the spotlight, and slow to praise – all of which are signs of bad leaders.
Paradoxically, the things that charismatic leaders do to maintain their power are precisely the things that diminish it when their business, country or other undertaking encounters problems. These problems are attributed to the leader, and since their leadership is based on the assumption that they will never encounter problems, their supporters begin to distance themselves.
These situations often trigger strong emotions.
When charismatic leaders use their position to motivate their followers to do things they would not normally do, the followers often feel betrayed once they suspect that they might not get the expected payoff. They react with opposition, anger, and hate, depending on their investment in the leader. For businesses, bloggers, and social media personalities, these developments can easily lead to the end of their movement.
Additionally, charismatic leaders often eventually take the praise of their followers too seriously and show narcissistic traits.
They consider criticism as disobedience and expect total loyalty. Instead of choosing the best person for a job, they pick the most loyal; which, in turn, hurts them and their goals.
In this way, charismatic leadership has a strong tendency to backfire.
This tendency is reduced when a leader has a small following. With teachers, for example, a charismatic leadership style is less dangerous than for a writer or a musician. For artists with a charismatic leadership style (boy bands, for example), a quick rise usually precedes a quick fall.
What are the examples of charismatic leaders?
Since the early 20th century, there have been many popular leaders in all fields of public life.
Examples of charismatic leaders in history
We already mentioned a few examples of charismatic leaders in history. There were leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and many dictators, but also Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.
Other fields had charismatic leaders, too, such as Vince Lombardi (sports), Carl Sagan (science), and Wernher von Braun (architect/engineer).
Examples of charismatic leaders today
The modern world is full of charismatic leaders. In business, we have Elon Musk and Richard Branson. In politics, we have Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and countless others who stand out as charismatic leaders. Social media has created charismatic leaders in all fields; influencers, bloggers, and even scientists, such as Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
In sports, too, many coaches and managers use a charismatic leadership style. Perhaps the most prominent example is NFL coach Rex Ryan.
Should I lead by charisma?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question of whether or not you should use a charismatic leadership style.
Charismatic leadership can be a great way to inspire loyalty.
This loyalty has its upsides, for example, it can make it easier for you to retain your top employees or maximize the effort of each employee. However, this type of loyalty can also be dangerous- when your team is blinded by your charisma, they may fail to alert you of mistakes, and you might drift into an authoritarian leadership style.
On the other hand, it is difficult to lead without some kind of charisma.
Every leader needs loyalty and a way of inspiring their followers, employees, and/or co-workers; especially when one is starting out, it may be near-impossible to inspire these feelings without a bit of charisma.
The degree to which you should rely on charisma depends on what you are trying to do. If you want to lead a group of employees in a firm with a long history, your job title lends you some credibility. Charisma can definitely help you, although, it is possible to succeed with very little of it. This same principle applies to teachers, professors, and other people with credible titles.
If you are trying to become an influencer, a blogger, or an author, these titles are less helpful. Even if you are a doctor giving medical advice on a blog, you need a reason why people should listen to you over the thousands of other voices.
Charisma is an essential part of answering this question.
Try to use as much charisma as you need, but avoid making charisma your main focus or your only focus. While attracting people through charisma might be your only option, you have to back this charisma up with the quality leadership based on values and principles that allow your followers to believe in the system more than in your charisma.
Only then, can you stand a chance of establishing a functioning and long-term leadership?
How can I become a more charismatic leader?
The internet is full of advice on how to become a more charismatic leader. Much of this advice is manipulative, relating more to the dark side of charismatic leadership. Nonetheless, there are three charismatic qualities that every leader can integrate into their leadership style if they want to truly motivate people. These qualities are:
- Have a non-material goal that truly motivates you. Great people are motivated by more than material possessions. To attract and motivate them, you need a vision, too. Think of Elon Musk or other charismatic political leaders.
- Put your supporters before yourself. Praise them, help them succeed. Put them ahead of your own goals.
- Communicate your thoughts, hopes, and goals. To be considered as charismatic, people have to know what is going on inside your head. Tell them why you do things, how you think, and what you hope to achieve.
Use these tools in a way that suits your personality, but be wary of the destructive potential of charismatic leadership.
Avoid getting carried away by the ability to get others to do things, always use this power to their advantage.