The Art of Charm: The Charismatic Leadership Theory

Small blue paper airplanes following a larger orange paper airplane on a navy blue background representing charismatic leadership theory.

Choosing the right leadership method can be confusing and challenging. Starting in the 20th century and extending to now, psychologists have given charismatic leadership theory attention because of the strong personalities who have been able to manage in that style. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paull II have made their legacies for leading with a great deal of charm and charisma.

Through a close look at charismatic leadership theory’s significance, its advantages and disadvantages, and some real-world historical examples, we give a comprehensive overview of the leadership style. The psychology behind this unique leadership model deserves more attention because of its current and future applications in our society. There’s definitely a compelling case for adopting the charismatic leadership strategy, but leaders should understand its nuances more thoroughly before they consider implementing it in their own leadership practices.

What is Charismatic Leadership Theory?

Before adequate attention can be given to the significance of charismatic leadership theory, it must first be defined. Recently, a study titled “Charismatic leadership: Eliciting and channeling follower emotions” offered that “charismatic leaders elicit strong emotions from followers which encourage devotion and action, and these emotions mediate the relationship between charisma and its effects.” In simpler terms, the leadership concept can be chalked up to the successes of different leaders based on their charismatic approach to problem-solving.

Max Weber, a prominent sociologist from the early 1900s, originated the terminology for the three dominant kinds of leadership styles: charismatic, bureaucratic and traditional. He maintained that leaders embody all three kinds of authority models in different proportions or ratios.

Bureaucratic Leadership

According to the study “The Relationship between Bureaucratic Leadership Style (Task-Oriented) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM),” bureaucratic leadership can be defined as a model where “Leaders impose strict and systematic discipline on the followers, and demand business-like conduct.” Further, bureaucratic leaders are typically rule-reliant and project their authority rigidly.

Traditional Leadership

Separately, traditional authority models are founded on long-standing conventions. More directly, traditional leaders find their power and legitimacy through customs that have existed for long periods of time.

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership, thus, is much more dependent on the personality of the leader. Status, a business communications company, stated that leaders who apply the style are “individuals who use their personality and communication style to gain the admiration of followers.” Because of this, more than any other type of leadership style, charismatic leaders depend on the strength of their personalities to win over their audience.

Furthermore, Status said that charismatic leaders are capable of responding intelligently to social cues. In fact, charismatic leaders’ success stems in part from their ability to respond to the emotional needs of their followers. While this unique leadership style certainly has its perks, it also has some unexpected consequences.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Charismatic Leadership Theory

Charismatic authority, which so strongly depends on the personality of the leader, can certainly yield positive results. Because charismatic leaders often play on emotional appeals, they occupy a unique position where they are able to both motivate and calm their audiences.

David E. Rast, a social psychologist, has proved as much. In his work, he’s stated that charismatic leaders, or “transformational leaders,” become more desirable in times of social uncertainty. This logic makes sense considering the decisive nature found in the leadership method.

Another stark advantage of charismatic leaders is their ability to consistently motivate their followers. In the article “The Motivational Effects of Charismatic Leadership: A Self-Concept Based Theory,” the authors stated that charismatic leaders “cause followers to become highly committed to the leader’s mission, to make significant personal sacrifices in the interest of the mission, and to perform above and beyond the call of duty.” By intricately and compellingly playing on the values and feelings of their followers, charismatic leaders can successfully motivate people to accomplish their goals.

What’s more is that charismatic leaders can empower their followers through a unique bond or trust. Charismatic leadership theory can be put into action only if the leader can cultivate a profound sense of trust with a group of followers. This bond relies then on the charismatic leader holding their own actions and behaviors accountable.

At the same time, though, there can be several drawbacks to the unconventional leadership style. While charismatic leaders often rely on their confidence to build and maintain a following, having too much confidence could prove problematic. Workplace psychologist Steve Nguyen outlined four major drawbacks to leaders depending on their charisma. These include:

  1. An arrogance that distracts the leader.
  2. An inability to groom possible successors.
  3. A power vacuum after the leader steps down.
  4. A proneness to resist addressing problems.

In some instances, charismatic leaders have employed their charm for manipulative purposes. Roger Eatwell, a political scientist, has weighed in on this issue exhaustively and believes it could be a reason for the rise of fascism in the right before World War II. In the workplace, charismatic leaders can bring disadvantages, as well. Shelley Frost of the Houston Chronical said charisma by itself is not a strong enough quality to lead, and “the leader must have the best intentions of the company at heart and have other leadership qualities to back up the charisma.” These other qualities would be industry knowledge, receptiveness to criticism, and the ability to listen, to name a few.

To avoid these pitfalls, leaders should blend their authority styles. Relying too heavily on charisma compromises the ability to maintain support and trust. A study by the American Psychological Association found that individuals who were excessively charismatic were not as effective as moderately charismatic leaders because of their inability to lead operationally. In other words, extremely charismatic leaders usually could not keep up with the structural requirements of their positions. Separately, leaders who mixed authority styles in a more balanced way were much more capable of satisfying the requirements of their posts.

The Psychology of Charismatic Leadership Theory

In order to understand the psychology of people who have applied their charisma to their leadership styles, it’s helpful to look at real-world examples. By understanding their behaviors and actions, we can better understand the inner workings of some of the most immediately recognizable charismatic leaders.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Civil Rights leader in the 1950s and ’60s displayed an intense confidence in front of crowds to help peacefully desegregate the United States. Uniquely, King was able to deliver his charismatic leadership style in an inclusive way to help motivate his following to non-violently overthrow Jim Crow-era laws. His legacy today is important not only for the rhetorical power of his speeches, but also for the effective and inspiring ways he was able to lead America toward Civil Rights legislation.

Pope John Paul II

As the pope who led the Catholic Church through the millennium, John Paul II was responsible for proposing and carrying out several changes to the institution in the late 20th century. He was able to do this because of his outward and infectious charisma, which according to Telegraph correspondent Damian Thompson, “was so overpowering that people felt giddy in his presence.” Because of his ability to lead through his palpable charisma, he was able to unite and inspire Catholics across the world.

Steve Jobs

As the CEO of Apple in different stages of his career, Steve Jobs was able to bring the world into the 21st century by motivating his teams to produce their best work. His authority style, based on his own charisma, successfully introduced our world to impressive music storage, smart phone technology and cloud computing.

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