The Myth of Charismatic Leaders: It Can Be Foolish, Futile, and Even Dangerous to Follow Leaders Just Because They're Charismatic. Be Careful of Hero Worship, and Step Forward

By Raelin, Joseph A. | T&D, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Charismatic Leaders: It Can Be Foolish, Futile, and Even Dangerous to Follow Leaders Just Because They're Charismatic. Be Careful of Hero Worship, and Step Forward


Raelin, Joseph A., T&D


Perhaps no subject has captivated the American business audience more than leadership. Within the practice of leadership, charisma is thought to be the quality that, though often considered metaphysical, represents the hallmark of inspirational leadership.

If leadership has something to do with inspiring a cadre of followers to do things in their own interest but also for the greater good, then we certainly need individuals who have a special talent to recruit others to work together towards a common cause.

Often, such individuals have heroic qualities because they're thought to persist in spite of the odds against them. They're also thought to possess particular heroic characteristics, such as courage and persistence, to face and prevail against those who would resist their noble efforts.

Many social critics have begun to challenge that heroic view of leadership. Should leadership rest upon the shoulders of one individual? We're beginning to see that many of the tasks that we need to perform in order to achieve our missions cannot be accomplished awaiting orders from just one person. All of us need to act and rake a leadership role within our own domains.

Is it possible, then, that leadership may be as much a collective as an individual property? Do we need a savior to steer us out of trouble, or can we rely upon each other to find our way in the world?

If leadership is something other than being in charge of others--if it belongs nor to the hero (without whom the followers will surely founder) but to the collective urged to face their own problems, then there may be a need to revise the ancient, obdurate concept of charisma.

The sway of charisma

Charisma comes from the Greek word meaning "gift," suggesting that leaders have special gifts to distribute. Their gifts aren't necessarily physical; they're more likely to be social. In fact, it's commonly thought that the pleasing personality of a charismatic person is his or her greatest gift. So, by definition, charismatics sway people and shape the future by their sheer presence and personality.

Charismatic leaders are thought to differ from mere mortal leaders by their ability to formulate and articulate an inspirational vision, as well as by actions that foster the impression that they are extraordinary people. Some observers go as far as to suggest that divine qualities exist in charismatic leaders--following Max Weber, who in Economy and Society asserted that these people are "set apart from ordinary [people] and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least exceptional powers and qualities... [that] are not accessible to the ordinary person but are regarded as divine or as exemplary."

Unfortunately, even if we were to decide on what are the ingredients of a charismatic personality, I doubt we would ever find that charismatics are persuasive in all environments and for all times. The post-war demise of Winston Churchill is a sufficient case. Except for exceptional circumstances when a community is in dire straits and genuinely asks for the direction of an outspoken member, there are severe problems in allowing a given individual--particularly a charismatic--to control a community.

As soon as one attempts to identify the particular characteristics that make up a charismatic personality, one begins to exclude a host of candidates for leadership. Here's how perennial CEO Lawrence Bossidy, formerly of Allied-Signal and Honeywell, unwittingly characterizes leaders in his chapter, "Reality-Based Leadership: Changes in the Workplace," in The Book of Leadership Wisdom (John Wiley & Sons, 1998):

You all know the maxim, "Leaders are born, not made." That's only half true. Some people are, indeed, born leaders, and you can spot them a mile away. The trouble is, there simply aren't enough of them to go around So, we need to find individuals with innate intelligence, an eagerness to learn, and a desire to work with others, and give them the tools and encouragement they need to become effective leaders, too. …

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