The Sociology of Charismatic Leadership

“Men do not obey him [the charismatic ruler] by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him.” -Max Weber in “Politics As A Vocation”.

Of all of the aspects of leadership, charisma is the least understood and the most overlooked, with the exception of politics and sociological understandings. One description of a charismatic leader is one who leads “by the force of their personal abilities are capable of having profound and extraordinary effects on followers” (House & Baetz, 1979).

Max Weber described three types of authority, traditional, legal, and charismatic, where charismatic fell into familial and religious realms. But it is clear that charismatic authority has invaded the other types of authority, as almost a requirement for rulers as well as lawmakers.

Such leaders have been able to enact major social change, serve as revolutionary heroes, and have the image of superheroes. Followers can be moved to accept and follow the leaders commands and goals without condition or challenge, being compelled to abandon the charismatic leader only in the most egregious of situation where disappointment is as profound as the benefits of following the leader.

Charisma comes from the Greek word for “Gift” and is cited in the Bible, with prophecy, ruling, teaching, ministry, wisdom, and healing as the individual charismatic gifts. Beyond that description, however the intangible and scientifically impossible to corral characteristics that are related to charisma are sufficient to cause students of organizational and social behavior to avoid developing any kind of conceptual framework or scientific design for dealing with the subject.

The older models of leadership tended to focus on descriptions of technical or identifiable factors, such as planning, enforcing contractual agreements, use of power to control and to create compliance, and other more power related forms of leadership. The newer models emphasize articulating visions, motivating and inspiring, empowering other, creating commitment, forecasting changes, and using intuition and attachment. (Bryman, 1993).

As a result, there is dissonance between the terms used to describe any form of leadership, and  whether the same terms are being described and applied in various studies and models, and whether “old versus new” even applies to leadership and its charismatic form. Even the leaders approach to people, elements of personal charm, the impressions that are left in people who have interacted with them, or the indefinable quality of “energy” or “magnetism” causes the researcher who attempt to classify the qualities to go down paths that are unique to each and every individual who has the potential, the experience, or the title of charismatic leader.

One problem with discussions of charisma lies in the focus on the positive attributes of charisma. It is hard to find a discussion which identifies the negative forces of charisma: the ability to lie convincingly; to behave as if normal while lacking the mechanisms of guilt, remorse or shame; and even the ability to mask or to use techniques to focus attention away from anti-social, personality adjustment and other mental disorders.  As a result, bad bosses, sociopaths, con artists, recidivist criminals and criminal masterminds, along with the most terrible leaders in history are rarely viewed as charismatic. In fact, most populations are confounded by the fact that anyone would willingly follow such individuals into catastrophe. Yet even the most evil of serial killers and extremists manage to have followers, love interests and fans.

In politics, entertainment, and social movements, there is much evidence that can be collected about  the specific styles, forms, speech, and behaviors that have been used with great success by charismatic leaders in the past, but there is no progress in understanding why some politicians and public figures have achieved “teflon” status, while others are defeated by the slightest hint of a negative act or quality.

In summary, it is a fruitful endeavor to continue the study of the elusive, difficult to define, and possibly impossible goal: understanding just what it is that makes a successful charismatic individual, whether a leader, celebrity, celebrity criminal or local hero.


Wikipedia: Tripartite Classification Of Authority