Understanding the Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship: Promises and Perils

By Dumas, Colette; Sankowsky, Dan | Journal of Leadership Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship: Promises and Perils


Dumas, Colette, Sankowsky, Dan, Journal of Leadership Studies


Executive Summary

The authors propose a framework for analyzing the dynamics of the leader-follower relationship in a mentoring context. To illustrate their framework, they use personal disclosure and personal case analysis. This framework addresses a power imbalance that can characterize the charismatic leader-follower relationship, affecting motivational assessment, resource allocation and evaluation processes. The authors conclude with guidelines for follower self empowerment and leader preventive maintenanace to help avoid such power imbalances in the future.

Perhaps there needs to be a label announcing that "having a charismatic mentor may be hazardous to your mental health." While there is great appeal in working with someone of charisma, subtle forces at work within the relationship may undermine the follower's sense of self. In this article, we present a framework for analyzing the dynamics of the leader-follower relationship in a mentoring context. This framework addresses a power imbalance that can characterize the charismatic leader-follower relationship, and which affects motivational assessment, resource allocation, and evaluation processes. Following along a newly established path of scholarly disclosure (Neck, Godwin & Spence, 1996; Sankowsky, 1997; Gould, 1989), the authors will illustrate this framework using examples from their experiences with charismatic mentors.

We will begin the article with our stories:

The lead author, to be referred to as CD, sought a mentoring relationship with a colleague who is considered an expert in a certain type of teaching. She and this faculty member, here labeled ET, agreed that she would attend his classes and that together they would write a paper on the philosophy and techniques of his approach. They also agreed that she would apply his technique to her own teaching. CD was instrumentally motivated to improve her teaching ratings and to bolster her publication record in her quest for tenure. She was also transformationally motivated to learn about a cutting edge approach to her profession and to become more self-aware in the process (such were the claims for this type of teaching).

The second author, to be referred to as DS, sought an employment relationship with a psychiatric clinic promoting a brave new approach to treatment. DS agreed to undergo therapy as part of the learning process. He and his therapist/trainer, here labeled J, were to meet 3 hours a day for 3 weeks at the outset and then after, on an as-needed basis. The mutually agreed upon goals were for DS to master the process by learning about his own issues and then learning to help others with a cutting edge technique. Both CD and DS found their leaders to be charismatic, in addition to having expertise.

THE PERSONAL POWERS: Symbolic Status, Expertise, and Advocacy

In any leader-follower relationship, the leader possesses at least three distinct "personal" power sources: symbolic status, expertise, and advocacy. The first two are well chronicled in the literature. By symbolic status, we mean the tendency for one person to view another in terms of unresolved issues from his or her past; typically, to "symbolize" that other as a surrogate parent, seeking to have various deep psychological needs met by this individual. This term originated in a psychoanalytic context, referring to a phenomenon known as "transference" (Ehrenberg, 1985; Gill, 1982)in which clients work on their connection with their parents through the medium of the therapist.

The phenomenon of transference has been noted in organizational contexts as well, applying to both leaders and followers. Kets de Vries (1989) details how followers are driven to gain leader approval and affiliation beyond purely hierarchical instrumentality. Sankowsky (1995) provides specific accounts of executives driven to a "parental" link with their own bosses. The power of symbolic status refers to an individual's capacity to elicit this symbolic response from another. …

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