Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Charisma and Leadership in African Drama

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Charisma and Leadership in African Drama

Article excerpt

USED SO OFTEN AND SO INDISCRIMINATELY IN THE MEDIA, the word 'charisma' may seem to be of no real intellectual value at all. In Britain, David Cameron, it seems, has 'charisma' - that is, until the political editorialists deem that he has lost it; Gordon Brown, it seemed, couldn't lose it because he never had it. Tony Blair once had it, but it seemed to wear off rather badly as the Iraq debacle went on. Margaret Thatcher, even if you hated her (and a lot of us did), undeniably had something, and charisma is one word for it. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France apparently has it, or would like to force this impression on people, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany doesn't. In spite of the prestige invested in his office, George W. Bush was, for most people, including even many who once voted for him, the very antitype of the charismatic. What on earth are the political commentators on about? Is their notion of charisma really nothing more than the capacity to combine political shrewdness with a certain amount of sex appeal? When it is attached so often, so arbitrarily, and often so ephemerally to public figures - as shrewdness or physical attractiveness ebbs away - it seems fair to reject, or at best attach no more than trivial significance to, the word itself.

And yet charisma represents a central concept in the thinking of the most influential of modern political sociologists, Max Weber. Weber thought that, historically, there had been three "pure types of legitimate authority" - the traditional (resting on the sanctity of immemorial traditions), the rational (depending on normative rules), and, adapting the word from the vocabulary of early Christianity in which it signified the God-given gift of grace, the charismatic. In striking contrast to both patriarchal and bureaucratic systems - which at least have in common permanent structures fashioned to meet the demands of a normal routine - the charismatic is antipathetic to the very notion of routine, of form or ordered procedures, or even of the 'rational economic conduct' characteristic of the other two systems.1 Weber defines it thus:

The term "charisma" will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. In primitive circumstances this peculiar kind of deference is paid to prophets, to people with a reputation for therapeutic or legal wisdom, to leaders in the hunt, and heroes in war. It is very often thought of as resting on magical powers. (48)

By its very nature, charismatic authority is unstable, since pure charisma does not know any legitimacy other than that flowing from personal strength:

The charismatic hero does not deduce his authority from codes and statutes, as is the case with the jurisdiction of office; nor does he deduce his authority from traditional custom or feudal vows of faith, as is the case with patrimonial power. (22)

On the contrary, the charismatic leader has authority "solely by proving his strength in life," performing miracles or heroic deeds for the greater wellbeing of his followers. Psychologically, submission to the authority of the charismatic leader arises from complete personal devotion, from a belief in that leader's wholly exceptional and infallible powers. It follows that if, for some reason, the object of this devotion fails over a period of time to produce the goods for his followers, or is otherwise revealed as something less than god-like, his charismatic authority is likely to drain away. Also, even though genuine charisma and routine are by nature absolutely opposed, Weber identifies what he calls the "routinization" of charisma:

It is the fate of charisma, whenever it comes into the permanent institutions of a community, to give way to powers of tradition or of rational socialization. …

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