Changing Minds Group: Leadership Styles: Do Leaders have to have charisma?

Up from the Hub archives. Originally published 2007

Hub member David Straker shares with us just a glimpse of the masses of useful learning in his changing Minds website...

Charisma is just one leadership style. But, the assumption is too often that leaders have to have 'charisma'.

So, what is 'charismatic' leadership? And do you have to have 'charisma' to be a leader?

Assumptions

Charm and grace are all that is needed to create followers.

Self-belief is a fundamental need of leaders.

People follow others that they personally admire.

Style

The Charismatic Leader gathers followers through dint of personality and charm, rather than any form of external power or authority.

The searchlight of attention

It is interesting to watch a Charismatic Leader 'working the room' as they move from person to person. They pay much attention to the person they are talking to at any one moment, making that person feel like they are, for that time, the most important person in the world.

Charismatic Leaders pay a great deal of attention in scanning and reading their environment, and are good at picking up the moods and concerns of both individuals and larger audiences. They then will hone their actions and words to suit the situation.

Pulling all of the strings

Charismatic Leaders use a wide range of methods to manage their image and, if they are not naturally charismatic, may practice assiduously at developing their skills. They may engender trust through visible self-sacrifice and taking personal risks in the name of their beliefs. They will show great confidence in their followers. They are very persuasive and make very effective use of body language as well as verbal language.

Deliberate charisma is played out in a theatrical sense, where the leader is 'playing to the house' to create a desired effect. They also make effective use of storytelling, including the use of symbolism and metaphor.

Many politicians use a charismatic style, as they need to gather a large number of followers. If you want to increase your charisma, studying videos of their speeches and the way they interact with others is a great source of learning. Religious leaders, too, may well use charisma, as do cult leaders.

Leading the team

Charismatic Leaders who are building a group, whether it is a political party, a cult or a business team, will often focus strongly on making the group very clear and distinct, separating it from other groups. They will then build the image of the group, in particular in the minds of their followers, as being far superior to all others.

The Charismatic Leader will typically attach themselves firmly to the identify of the group, such that to join the group is to become one with the leader. In doing so, they create an unchallengeable position for themselves.

Alternative views

The description above is purely based on charisma and takes into account varying moral positions. Other descriptions tend to assume a more benevolent approach.

Conger & Kanungo (1998) describe five behavioral attributes of Charismatic Leaders that indicate a more transformational viewpoint:

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

Musser (1987) notes that charismatic leaders seek to instil both commitment to ideological goals and also devotion to themselves. The extent to which either of these two goals is dominant depends on the underlying motivations and needs of the leader.

Discussion

The Charismatic Leader and the Transformational Leader can have many similarities, in that the Transformational Leader may well be charismatic. Their main difference is in their basic focus. Whereas the Transformational Leader has a basic focus of transforming the organization and, quite possibly, their followers, the Charismatic Leader may not want to change anything.

Despite their charm and apparent concern, the Charismatic Leader may well be somewhat more concerned with themselves than anyone else. A typical experience with them is that whilst you are talking with them, it is like being bathed in a warm and pleasant glow, in which they are very convincing. Yet afterwards, ask the sunbeam of their attention is moved elsewhere, you may begin to question what they said (or even whether they said anything of significance at all).

The values of the Charismatic Leader are highly significant. If they are well-intentioned towards others, they can elevate and transform an entire company. If they are selfish and Machiavellian, they can create cults and effectively rape the minds (and potentially the bodies) of the followers.

Their self-belief is so high, they can easily believe that they are infallible, and hence lead their followers into an abyss, even when they have received adequate warning from others. The self-belief can also lead them into psychotic narcissism, where their self-absorption or need for admiration and worship can lead to their followers questioning their leadership.

They may also be intolerant of challengers and their irreplaceability (intentional or otherwise) can mean that there are no successors when they leave.

See also

Bonding principle, Pull, Trust principle

Musser, S.J. (1987). The determination of positive and negative charismatic leadership, Grantham: PA: Messiah College

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