Meaning from Within: Possible Selves and Personal Meaning of Charismatic and Non-Charismatic Leaders

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Executive Summary

The leadership literature has identified both the leader's self-concept and personal meaning as sources of motivation for charismatic and non-charismatic leaders. However, while several versions of charismatic and non-charismatic leadership theory predict such effects, none of them explains how the content of a leader's personal meaning is influenced by the self-concept. This article seeks to advance leadership theory by addressing this fundamental problem. Based on theories of possible selves, personal meaning and charismatic leadership, this article describes how a leader's thoughts about his or her potential and future may influence the personal meaning of charismatic and non-charismatic leaders.

The charismatic leader is often described as an extraordinary individual who exercises diffuse and intense influence over others through his or her values, beliefs, and behaviors. Charismatic influence stems from visionary and inspirational messages, change agency, follower development, symbolism, and appeal to the values of followers. Constructive forms of charismatic leadership may result in new heights of individual and collective achievements, whereas destructive forms may result in individual and/or collective ruin (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). These processes and outcomes are in stark contrast with those of non-charismatic leaders who rely on exchange relationships, goals, and rewards to achieve expected levels of performance (Bass, 1990).

One important aspect of charismatic leadership is the leader's self-image (Gardner & Avolio, 1998). Self-image encompasses how the leader describes himself or herself in terms of needs, beliefs, values and personal meaning. Provision of meaning is central to self-concept-based (e.g., Shamir, House & Arthur, 1995), psychoanalytic (e.g., Eisenstadt, 1968; Kets de Vries, 1988; Zaleznik, 1974) and organizational (e.g., House, 1977; Smircich & Morgan, 1982 explanations of charismatic leadership. A common theme in these theories is that followers who experience high levels of personal or collective stress search for leaders who give meaning to their experiences. However, there is no self-concept based explanation to account for the sources and content of personal meaning used by leaders to provide meaning to followers. The purpose of this article is to offer a theoretical basis for explaining how self-conceptions relate to the personal meaning of charismatic leaders and noncharismatic leaders.

The Self-Concept as a Source of Personal Meaning

Personal meaning can be defined as that which makes one's life most important, coherent and worthwhile. The extensive literature on personal meaning (see Wong, 1998 for a comprehensive review) is derived from seminal work on purpose-in-life (PIL) by Franld (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 (strength) and type (content) of meaning associated with the goal.

Empirical work in humanistic/existential psychology (e.g., Beike & Niedenthal, 1998; Farran, Keane-Hagerty, Salloway, Kupferer, & Wilken, 1991) suggests that personal meaning (e.g., PIL) may stem from the self-concept. The self-concept represents the "compository of life span experiences, motivational states, and action orientations" (Cross & Markus, 1991, p. 230). The self-concept is a complex dynamic phenomenon containing multiple aspects (i.e., past, present and future self-conceptions), which are ordered in a hierarchy based on salience (i.e., the strength or intensity over the individual) and/or situtational importance. Because the entire self system is too enormous to be held in memory at once, the most salient and accessible self-conceptions are contained in the working self-concept, which Markus and Nurius (1986) defined as "the set of self-conceptions that are presently active in thought and memory" (p. …


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