Fidel Castro and Winston Churchill. Jesus and Mohammed. All exemplify charismatic leadership, one of the three forms of leadership classified by sociologist Max Weber.
At the heart of Weber’s classification is a belief in the “exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual”. Significantly, it is a neutral term, implying neither good nor evil. Hitler, for example, was a charismatic leader as was Mohandas Ghandi.
One of the most fascinating attributes of charismatic leadership is that followers are drawn to the individual because of their personality or charisma. Like Ghandi, they do not have to hold a position of authority in order to inspire or lead people.
Instead, followers may see the leader as a parental figure who will nurture and guide them or as a prophet who can reveal higher truths. The leader may also be heralded as a hero based on previous triumphs or as a person of integrity, regarded for living by strong principles.
In recent years, charismatic leadership has fallen out of favor. Yet, it still plays a role in our society. When a Fortune 500 company needs a CEO to turn the tide of failing fortunes or a lackluster political party wants to boost its popularity in the polls, a charismatic leader can be relied upon to inspire renewed faith and optimism among the ranks.
Despite the naysayers, charismatic leadership can benefit society in multiple ways.
• Vision: these leaders express a compelling view of the future.
• Passion: they embody their belief.
• Energy: they commit boundless energy to realizing their goals.
• Creativity: they develop solutions to the problems that bog others down.
• Inspiration: they arouse confidence, faith and belief in their followers.
Given such positive associations, why would anyone question the role of charismatic leadership in our society today? The answer lies in how easily faith can be misplaced. When we consider a cult like that of the notorious Jim Jones, we can see how blindly following a leader can bring about pain, suffering and death.
Even in the service of a worthy cause, there are negative aspects to charismatic leadership. Heroic self-sacrifice, for example, can jeopardize family relationships and physical or financial health.
As history reveals, however, charismatic leadership can also be a positive and beneficial practice. The key lies in whether or not it is carried out ethically. In the best of all possible worlds, leaders act in the interests of their followers. Furthermore, they encourage their followers to take responsibility for their actions and ultimately become leaders themselves.
This is radically different from a situation like that created by Jim Jones or other cult leaders, where followers are required to accept the leader’s demands without question, regardless of how it affects them.
Too often, the latter is the situation that comes to mind when we think about charismatic leadership. Yet, when we look at the contributions of some exemplary leaders we can see how greatly it has benefited our world in the past and how much we continue to reap from it today.