Charismatic Leadership Research Paper

Posted on October 27, 2009


Many leaders, past and present, have been identified as charismatic leaders. The author explains the history of charismatic leadership and its characteristics. Different charismatic leaders and their leadership characteristics are discussed. An explanation of the characteristics and behaviors of followers of charismatic leaders is discussed. Cultural and situational charismatic leaders are explained and why certain individuals originate as leaders. A comparison and relationship between transformational, transactional, and charismatic leadership styles is discussed.

Charismatic Leadership

Society is made up of many different types of leaders. One of these types is charismatic leadership. Charismatic leadership was introduced around the turn of the century and has been researched and studied ever since. The leaders that are defined as charismatic leaders display characteristics that followers relate to. Charismatic leaders’ posses’ characteristics that enable them to win follower’s respect and support for his or her beliefs or visions. Leaders from all walks of life both good and bad have been identified as charismatic leaders because of their ability to persuade others that their beliefs were right. The history, characteristics, charismatic leaders, and charisma related to other leadership styles will be discussed in this paper. Charismatic leadership can be a forceful leadership style that can be used to improve societies and organizations or it can also be used for detrimental purposes.

The German sociologist Max Weber is the person responsible for introducing the idea of charisma as being a type of leadership. Weber believed that leaders who possessed charismatic leadership qualities were highly esteemed persons. Due to his research on leadership, sociologist began to study the concept of charisma in both social and political walks of life in the early twentieth century.

Talcott Parsons is widely credited with importing Weber to the United States; Parson’s introduced his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1937 which dominated American sociology for decades. Parson’s view of Weber’s ideas was challenged over the decades by famous sociologist such as Pope, Cohen and Hazelrigg. They believed that Parson’s views of Weber’s ideas were distorted by misinterpreting the German’s original ideas.

Lowell Bennion was the first person responsible for making available Weber’s original ideas in the United States. He translated Weber’s ideas and writings from German to English in a dissertation, Max Webster’s Methodology, where only a hundred copies were published in 1933. Bennion’s dissertation was written 13 years after Weber’s death and was influenced by scholars who were Weber’s contemporaries. (DiPadova, 1996)

According to DiPadova, Weber introduced the concept of charisma when viewing authority in regards to religion. In this he describes three types of power:

  1.  charismatic authority (“the external or internal rule over man made possible by the faith of the ruled in this supernatural power of the leader”)
  2.  traditional authority (“the traditionalistic rule of man is based on the faith in that which has always been”); and
  3.  rational-legal authority (based on impersonal rules and norms. Its typical representative is the bureaucratic rule made possible by the victory of the formal juridic rationalism of the Occident”) From these three types of power sociologist began to research Weber’s authoritative leadership ideas. Charismatic leadership was not researched strongly until the 1970’s where sociologists began to survey and experiment with charismatic leadership ideas. (DiPadova, 1996)

Since Weber introduced the idea of charismatic leadership into society, many charismatic leaders have been identified. Leaders that are considered charismatic leaders tend to have similar basic characteristics.

These characteristics are:

  1.  Self-confidence and self assurance
  2.  Need for power and low authoritarianism
  3.  Expert power
  4.  Referent power
  5.  Communications and rhetorical skills
  6.  Assertive, dynamic, outgoing, and forceful

Leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson, and Adolph Hitler were considered charismatic leaders. All four leaders possessed self-confidence and self assurance along with other charismatic characteristics. They believed in their “vision” whether good or bad. As leaders they were able to persuade others to follow and fight for the vision they essentially believed in. Many followers believed so whole-heartily in the vision that they committed murder and even suicide.

People that follow the charismatic leader possess many of the same characteristics as their leaders. Characteristics of followers:

  1.  Identify with the leader and the leader’s beliefs
  2.  Heightened emotional levels
  3.  Willing subordination to the leader
  4.  Feelings of empowerment

Followers of charismatic leaders often follow there leaders blindly because the leader is so confident in his beliefs that whatever the leader says or does is accepted by all without comment or thought. Leaders of religious cults and sects often attract followers that are lonely and insecure; these followers are looking for someone that will take control of their “pathetic” lives and many are looking for a place to belong.

Some sociologist believes that a person becomes a charismatic leader if the situation arises. These situational charismatic leaders form characteristics similar to the following:

  1.  Crises
  2.  Task interdependence
  3.  Innovation
  4.  More receptive to change
  5.  Organizational downsizing

Lee Iacocca became a charismatic leader because of the situation at hand. He was able to pull the Chrysler Corporation back into being because of his charismatic leadership abilities. Cultural charismatic leaders often arise when cultures and their cultural values are threatened. These situational leaders promote unlearning and the search for new actions. Many arise when traditional authority cannot meet an organization’s need for leadership. Charismatic leaders often appear because the culture is expecting or prophesizing the leader’s arrival. When this happens certain characteristics contribute to charismatic leadership.

These characteristics are:

  1.  Social crises
  2.  Carries or spreads a “message”
  3.  Stimulates guilt or shame
  4.  Supernatural stature is assimilated

Charismatic leaders that evolve because of cultural unrest tend to be religious leaders that followers think of as “prophets” or “saints”, these leaders become the route to salvation.

Charismatic leadership can have both a negative and a positive impact on society and organizations. In the United States alone charismatic leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King used there leadership abilities to make society a better place for all individuals and races to live and work. While on the other hand Charles Manson used his charismatic leadership abilities to persuade his followers to commit horrendous murders on random individuals. Hitler convinced millions that his beliefs were the only true beliefs; in turn his followers committed murders because they believed in Hitler’s vision. Few studies have been made on the impact of charismatic leadership on society and organizations. Charismatic leaders that impact society can be distinguished as ethical or unethical charismatic. The ethical charismatic wants what is good for society or the organization and its members, while the unethical charismatic is motivated by personal power and achievement and pursues anything which makes him or her look better and stronger.

Transformational leadership is the leadership defined by a work-based exchange relationship. In this relationship the leader promotes alignment by providing fair extrinsic rewards and appealing to the intrinsic motivation of the collaborators. Transactional leadership is the leadership defined by an economically-based exchange relationship. In this relationship the leader promotes uniformity by providing extrinsic (positive or negative) rewards to the collaborators. Transformational leadership is the opposite of transactional leadership. Transformational leaders tend to be concerned with values, ethics, standards, and long-term goals, while transactional leaders focus on exchanges between leader and follower. Many politicians are elected to office because they are transactional leaders; they promise the voters to change laws and policies in exchange for their vote. A person can be both transformational and transactional depending upon the situation. Evangelists for instance are transformational leaders when they are trying to convert followers to their religion and at the same instance they are transactional leaders when they entice their followers to contribute money in exchange for a new worship area or prayer book. Transactional leadership tends to be transitory; the leader is effective as long as the relationship between leader and follower is mutually beneficial. Transformational leadership tends to have a strong bond or hold on its followers, there is no need to “dangle” promises and gifts. Transformational leaders have followers because the followers believe in the same vision as the leader. The transformational leader places the follower on a pedestal almost as high as the one he or she is preaching from. The leader makes the follower feel important and that the follower is making a great contribution to the vision.

In transformational leadership, charisma plays a major role. Charisma is defined as a special personality trait that gives an individual superhuman or exceptional power. Leaders that possess charisma appear to be competent and have high expectations for themselves and their followers. They also articulate ideological goals to their followers. These characteristics that define a charismatic individual is the same characteristics or traits that a transformational leader possess. Some sociologist interchanges transformational leadership with charismatic leadership because the two are closely related. Charismatic and transformational leadership provide the followers with a vision and a sense of mission, they instill pride among their followers. Charismatic leadership, intellectual stimulation, and inspirational leadership are components of transformational leadership.

Charismatic leadership throughout this century has development into a strong, forceful leadership style. The charismatic leader must possess characteristics that make him or her almost superhuman and mystical. Leaders and followers must share the same visions and goals for the charismatic leader to survive. Charismatic leadership qualities are mutually shared by other leadership styles such as transformational and transactional leadership. Charisma is a trait that a successful leader should have to become an effective leader. As spoken by Bass in 1985 he states that, “Charisma is in the eye of the beholder and, therefore, is relative to the beholder. Nevertheless, the charismatic leader actively shapes and enlarges his or her audience through energy, self-confidence, assertiveness, ambition, and opportunities seized.”

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