Leadership: Charismatic Leaders

Charismatic Leaders

We have all met highly charismatic people and their seemingly innate way they influence us can provide us with an interesting leadership tool.

The concept of Charismatic Leaders lies with Max Weber, a German Sociologist, who established a framework for studying leadership based on the observation that during times of immense crisis (either societal or organisational), when the general social group feel threatened by forces they cannot control, leaders emerge that have a high degree of charisma.

These charismatic leaders offered their group a radical solution to the threatening forces the group faced, through a bold vision which is founded on the needs and values of followers.

Weber’s work was followed in in the 1960’s by Robert House theory of charismatic leaders, which saw “charismatic leaders engage follower self concepts and cause followers to link valued aspects of their self-concepts to their involvement in the leader’s vision and mission”.

Martin Luther King, Jr observed this charismatic leader as “People are often led to causes and often become committed to great ideas through persons who personify those ideas. They have to find embodiment of the idea in flesh and blood in order to commit themselves to it”

Research indicates that charismatic leaders tend to relieve followers’ subjective feelings of stress and alienation, transform their organisation, and motivate followers to transcend their own self interest to better their organisation.

Characteristics & Behaviours of a Charismatic Leader

The characteristics of a charismatic leader are…

  • strong need for power and social influence
  • a bold vision that differs from the status quo
  • relentless optimism, energy and determination
  • high self confidence and general sense of self-worth
  • a strong conviction in their own beliefs and ideals
  • an ability to articulate their vision in a compelling way

A charismatic leader will typically…

  • communicate a bold vision, couched in positive moral values, but challenging current convention
  • convince other that the vision is realistic and attainable
  • communicate high performance expectations and arouse motivation
  • build and maintain a positive personal image consistent with the vision
  • set an example as a role model for change and for high values
  • create empowering opportunities for others and express confidence in followers
  • take risks and make personal sacrifices for the mission

For me, as I note these characteristics and behaviours, the person who immediately jumps into my mind as meeting all the criteria as a charismatic leader is Adolf Hitler. I also have some flashbacks to some people I have worked with in the past who have some of those characteristics and behaviours (and were thankfully not at all like Hitler!).

Don’t let the mention of Adolf Hitler make you think that charismatic leaders are a bad way to lead.  In fact, the opposite is true, in specific circumstances.  They have a particular role, especially in leading large groups of people when things are tough, by building a strong sense of cohesiveness.  In fact, most respected leaders have a high degree of charisma in the leadership style including Theodore Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr to name just a few.

But having a charismatic leader does have some risks…

Leaders with such a bold new vision are not always suited to the organisational’s long term success.  This is because the needs of the organisation are supplemated by the needs of the charismatic leader – basically there is a real danger that the needs of the leader become greater than the needs of the organisation or even the followers. Are the leaders running the organisation as their own little fiefdom?

Also when the charismatic leader departs, its next to impossible to control or maintain the positive impact of such an inspiring leader.

Being charismatic over the long term successfully, requires a high degree of empathy and understanding along with a high degree of substance, if not with a little flair.  If you become perceived as being defficient in empathy or that you are seen as having mroe style over substance, being a charismatic leader can easily become a lead weight to your leadership style.

How can I use charismatic leadership to develop my personal leadership training?

Charismatic Leaders are important to understand as they highlight some of the leadership skills that are appropriate in certain contexts.

  1. Challenge yourself to see if you truly understand the needs of your team.
  2. Understand if your team’s needs are connected with the organisational needs.
  3. Challenge yourself to see if you have a bold, compelling and clear vision, that inspires and answers the needs of your followers.
  4. Be clear in how you will reward appropriate behaviour in your team
  5. Are you being consistent and authentic between your vision and your personal leadership behaviour?
  6. Are the risks you are taking with your vision commensurate with the returns for the team and the organisation?

For more reading on Charismatic Leaders, here are some useful books on the subject…

The Charismatic Leader

The rise and decline of charismatic leadership, Wharton Center For Leadership

Leadership Theory & Research

Martin Luther King on Leadership


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