Charismatic Leadership Theories

by Annie Sisk - Updated October 25, 2018
Portrait of smiling businesspeople

Charismatic leadership is one model utilized by academics and experts in organizational leadership to determine which traits, behaviors and activities help inspire and motivate change in a company's workforce. Many paradigms and theories have been developed by those who study the subject to help inform and educate business leaders about the most effective management tools and approaches. Those theories include frameworks based on self-assessment, attributions from others and transformational leadership.

Definition and Traits of Charismatic Leadership

Etymology helps to understand and define "charismatic." The word “charisma” is rooted in the ancient Greek word “kharisma,” meaning “favor or divine gift.” It has come to refer to a specific set of personal traits that have profound effects on other individuals.

Charismatic leadership is centered in an ability to charm and persuade. When a business, political or organizational leader is capable of inspiring and triggering emotional responses in followers, that leader is said to be charismatic. True charismatic leadership evokes genuine emotional changes in others.

Charismatic leadership isn’t merely the ability to excite an audience. It also includes the ability to motivate and persuade followers to commit to a goal and take action as part of a group effort. Charismatic leaders demonstrate sincerity in commitment to a cause (for example, a business goal). They also exhibit willingness to take reasonable risks or sacrifice their own comfort in order to achieve the goal. This, in turn, often inspires listeners and followers to do the same in an effort to take on the leader’s traits and qualities for themselves.

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Modern experts generally identify five characteristics of the charismatic boss:

  • Confidence: Charismatic leaders exude a calm, strong sense of faith in their skills, experience and abilities.
  • Communication: The key to charismatic persuasion rests in the leader’s communication skills, including the ability to listen proactively.
  • Focus: Charismatic leaders can focus with laser-like precision on goals, never allowing distractions to take root or steer them off course. 
  • Creativity: Charismatic leaders generally exhibit a higher degree of creativity and ingenuity at work, coming up with new ideas and suggestions.
  • Vision: Finally, leaders with charisma are capable of big-picture creativity, aiming for inspiring and challenging goals that help inspire others.

Early Development of Charismatic Leadership Theory

While the ideas behind charismatic leadership have been around for a century or more, modern charismatic leadership theory began in the 1970s with an academic focus on a leader’s self-assessment. In other words, individual leaders were asked to assess their own personal traits and behaviors that were believed to be part and parcel of charisma. So, for example, leaders were identified who believed they shared certain traits in common, such as confidence or greater than average communication skills. These traits then became part of the charismatic leader profile.

This theory was further refined over the next two decades to focus on the effect of such leaders on their followers or team members. When groups of individuals responded with an emotionally positive impression to a leader’s input and were then motivated to pursue the leader’s goals and even emulate his behavior, then the leader was deemed to be charismatic.

Attributional Charismatic Leadership Theory

Another paradigm for evaluating charismatic leadership also focused on traits, qualities and behaviors but from the viewpoint of others. Charismatic leadership qualities were evaluated based on how followers assigned certain attributes to persuasive, inspirational or charismatic leaders.

Charismatic leaders were identified as utilizing interpersonal skills such as social and personal identification, rapport-building and the internalization of common values in order to develop emotionally-resonant connections with their followers. However, this theory focuses on what the follower believes about the leader rather than how the leader behaves with the follower. In essence, it operates from the principle that charismatic leadership exists when a follower says it exists.

The Development of Transformational Leadership Theory

Perhaps the biggest development in the study of charismatic leadership is the theory of transformational leadership. It may be the most studied aspect of leadership in modern academics.

Its origins lie in the work of political scientist James MacGregor Burns, who established a paradigm or framework for viewing leadership from a transformational perspective by contrasting it with what he termed "transactional leadership." This type of leadership focuses solely on an exchange, much like a consumer purchase, where a buyer exchanges money for a product. This form of leadership never transcends the specific transaction, Burns believed.

On the other hand, transformational leadership involved a nurtured relationship in which both leader and follower feed each other and help inspire change in each other. Through this continually growing relationship, the parties essentially change the moral norms of behavior. The leader begins a continuing cycle of change in which the organization itself is ultimately transformed.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leaders can bring powerful advantages to any organization or business. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a recent example of a persuasive charismatic leader devoted to producing positive societal change.

However, charisma can also be wielded as a weapon for evil. Adolf Hitler is a prime example of a charismatic leader capable of persuading others to commit to his plans for destruction and genocide. His ability to coax others into performing grotesque acts of violence is testament to the power of charisma as much as it is evidence of the dangers of charismatic leadership.

However, charisma’s disadvantages aren’t necessarily so obviously immoral or destructive. Given enough time, any positively charismatic leader can slide into negative behavioral changes, according to some experts. Such leaders may come to believe their own press and resist any criticism, no matter how constructively phrased or offered. If this tendency goes unchecked, followers will begin to censor themselves, while unquestioning and loyal workers are absorbed into the leader’s inner circle. Ultimately, the organization becomes listless, indecisive and apathetic.

About the Author

Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.

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