What is Charismatic Leadership and is it Over-rated?

I must have asked different groups hundreds of times over the years to define charismatic leadership. It keeps on coming up the suave sophisticated leader who is a compelling speaker and skilled relationship builder. Who can paint a picture of the journey and make you want to go on too!

We have to go back to socialogy and Max Weber who defined 3 different types of authority people have over others which are:

charismatic, traditional and rational /legal . weber went on to define charismatic leadership as ""resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him."

The character component is interesting as no one talked about leadership character in the 80's and 90's it was all about the skills needed to be an effective leader. Thankfully character and mindset have made a comeback in the last few years.

So charismatic leadership rests entirely on the attributes of the leader and the perceived legitimacy of others.

Regardless of youour politics ,most people would class the former President Bill Clinton as a charismatic leader. What is continually said about him was: his ability to work a room and for 20 or 30 seconds make the person he was talking with feel that they were the most important person in the room.

So these types of leaders are:

  • very persuasive
  • Use high level communications skills like story telling and metaphor
  • use body language very effectively
  • Scan the environment thoroughly and pick up on moods
  • skilled at tailoring their tone and content to the audience

This approach is favoured in political circles as it is potentailly powerful in engendering a large number of followers.

Conger & Kanungo (1998) described 5 behavioral attributes of Charismatic Leaders.

  • Vision and articulation;
  • Sensitivity to the environment;
  • Sensitivity to member needs;
  • Personal risk taking;
  • Performing unconventional behaviour.

There are obvious similarities between charismatic and transformational leaders. You could argue that most transformational leaders are charismatic but not the other way around. Leaders with charisma may not be interested or focussing on transformation.

The trouble with charisma is more around the use of this power. It depends on the leaders values and intentions. We can distinguish between positive charisma where it is well intentioned on improving things for everyone and negative charisma where the intentions are more dubious or self-serving (does this bring us back to politics again?)

There is no doubt that positive leadership charisma can uplift an organisatin and even beginning its journey of transformation. And there are good examples of transformational leaders who were also charismatic.

But the charisma thing is probably a little over played , not all organizations have it or need it in large amounts and more humanistic and introverted leadership cultures seem to work just fine.

There are of course some risks in having a charismatic leader.

  • high levels of self-belief that can blind the leader to real and substantial risks.
  • reduced real time learning
  • power being centerd on a person makes sucession planning tricky and a leadership gap or even a crisis is not uncommon after a charismatic leader has left.

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