Charismatic Leadership: The Hidden Controversy

By Gibson, Jane Whitney; Hannon, John C. et al. | Journal of Leadership Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Charismatic Leadership: The Hidden Controversy


Gibson, Jane Whitney, Hannon, John C., Blackwell, Charles W., Journal of Leadership Studies


Executive Summary

This article looks at three controversial topics related to charismatic leadership: (1) Is charismatic leadership always a good thing? (2) Are we doomed by nature to be either charismatic or not? (3) Is charisma always an ethical constuct? The literature plus a survey of faculty and graduate students at two universities are used to provide tentative answers to these questions. Conclusions include: (1) There is no proof that charismatic leadership is always a good thing or that world-class companies must have charismatic leaders; (2) The nature/nurture controversy is still an open question; and (3) Charisma can be used in an ethical or unethical manner depending on the leader's intent and the amount of ego involved.

Charisma, that "you'll know it when you see it" dynamic personality often defined as magnetic and inspirational has received a lot of attention in the last two decades of leadership research. Managers are being told they need charisma to be a successful leader in visionary companies; students are being taught the pathway to certain organizational success is through the use of charismatic leadership. Buried in the literature, however, are at least three areas of controversy. First, is charismatic leadership always a good thing? Further, do world class companies need charismatic leaders? Secondly, assuming charisma is a good thing, are we doomed by nature to either be charismatic or not? Or, is there a way to learn to be charismatic? Is nature, so to speak, susceptible to nurture? Thirdly, is charisma an ethical construct or does the use of charisma all too often result in manipulative behavior on the part of the leader and blind obedience on the part of the follower? The purpose of this article is to step back and take a look at the accumulated literature of the last 20 years and look for answers to these three questions. Further, surveys of both faculty and graduate students will be used to assess popular thinking about charisma in general and the three questions posed above. First, however, a brief introduction to the study of charisma is presented followed by a description of the characteristics and behaviors of charismatics.

The Study of Charisma

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines charisma as, "(1) an extraordinary power given a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church, (2) a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure, (3) as attributed to Christian Theology, a divinely inspired gift, power, grace or talent." The American Heritage Dictionary explains charisma as "a rare, personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm," and adds that charisma is a power or quality of winning the devotion of large numbers of people.

The term charisma originates with an ancient Greek word meaning "gift". As later used by the early Christian church, the derivative charismata described "gifts from God that allowed receivers to carry out extraordinary feats such as healing or prophecy." (Conger, Kanungo, Menon, & Mathur, 1997, p. 291) It should be noted that this notion of charisma being a gift from God implies that it is an innate character trait rather than one that can be developed.

Early references to charismatic leadership inevitably lead back to Max Weber who posited that there are three types of authority, three masons why people give their allegiance to leaders and accept their dictates. These three types were (1) rational-legal, based on ones position or rank; (2) traditional, based on a belief in obedience to a person who occupied a traditional position of authority, and (3) charismatic, based on the sheer force of ones personality. (Wren, 1994, p. 195) According to Weber, charismatic authority was based on "devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person." (Weber, 1947, p. …

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