The Role of Personal Meaning in Charismatic Leadership

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Numerous theoretical explanations of charismatic leadership highlight the importance of providing meaning to followers. However, these explanations do not provide clear descriptions of how and why charismatic leaders construct meaning for followers based on their personal meaning. This article focuses on such theoretical issues with the hope of stimulating more systematic research efforts and practitioner interest on this topic. Emphasis is placed on influences of sources of personal meaning and purpose-in-life on the development of charismatic behaviors and attributions.

The provision of meaning by leaders is a common theme in symbolic-sociological (e.g., Eisenstadt, 1968), social contagion (Meindl, 1990), psychoanalytic (e.g., Kets de Vries, 1988), self-presentational (e.g., Gardner & Avolio, 1998) and organizational (e.g., Smircich & Morgan, 1986) explanations of charismatic leadership. Meaning is important for follower identification with the leader and his or her vision (Conger & Kanungo, 1998), engagement of motivational mechanisms in followers (Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993), and self-expression through work (Wheatley, 1992). In fact, personal meaning may promote hardiness or persistence in challenging situations (Antonovsky, 1983), enhance group effectiveness (Conyne, 1998), increase faith and pro-social values (Wong, 1998a), and reduce personal or collective stress (Wong, 1998b). Recognizing these benefits may be particularly important for contemporary charismatic leaders and their followers who typically interact in turbulent contexts requiring persistent collective action and strong faith in a better future.

Despite the general recognition of meaning as important to explanations of charismatic leadership, the literature has not systematically described the antecedents and nature of a leader's personal meaning nor the mechanisms by which it can foster attributions of charismatic leadership. The purpose of this article is to provide a theoretical foundation for understanding the role of a leader's personal meaning in charisma. First, an overview of personal meaning and related concepts will be provided. Next, a model will be presented depicting linkages between sources of personal meaning, leader personal meaning, charismatic behaviors and attributions, the societal/organizational environment, and relevant characteristics of the leader. Research and organizational issues pertaining to this model will then be discussed.

Personal Meaning

Personal meaning has been described in terms of purpose-in-life (Frankl, 1992), cognitive, emotional, and motivational components (Wong, 1998b), goal striving (Baumeister, 1991), goal appraisal (Emmons, 1986), personal projects (Little, 1983), sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1983; Korotkov, 1998), and clear interpretation of life/self (Weisskopf-Joelson, 1968). At the core of these descriptions is meaningfulness, which Korotkov defined as "the degree to which people's lives make emotional sense and that the demands confronted by them are perceived as being worthy of energy and commitment" (p. 55). Thus, personal meaning can be defined as that which makes one's life most important, coherent and worthwhile.

The array of theoretical perspectives on personal meaning is derived from seminal work on purpose-in-life (PIL) by Frankl (1992). PIL represents a positive attitude toward possessing a future-oriented self-transcendent goal in life. PIL can be described in terms of its depth (i.e., strength) and type (i.e., content) of meaning associated with the goal. More specifically, depth refers to the degree to which PIL is meaningful as opposed to shallow, whereas type refers to the kind of meanings individuals hold to be central to their self-concept. The depth and type of personal meaning are major determinants of motivation, especially for individuals facing challenges.

Three assumptions of Frankl's (1992) view of personal meaning are relevant. …