Charisma and Charismatic Leadership

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Leadership based on charisma is one of the main types of leadership discussed in contemporary literature on the topic. But it is important to know not only the current meaning of the term but also its origins and applications. Therefore, in our paper we will briefly explore the history of the notion of charisma, and then we will discuss how charismatic leadership’s peculiarities may influence organizational behavior.

Origins and Current Meaning of the Term “Charisma”

“Charisma” is a notion which originates from the ancient times; it can be translated from Greek as “gift of grace”, and was utilized exclusively in Christianity up until Max Weber’s inquiries (Sankar, 2003, p. 46). According to Goethals and Sorenson (2006), the first study of the notion of charisma was conducted by Weber, who argued that a charismatic person is collectively viewed by their followers as an individual imbued with certain uncommon traits which enable them to be a leader; this results in the followers’ willingness to recognize the person as a leader and to comply with their decisions (p. 116). Weber believed that a charismatic leader is “treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least… exceptional powers or qualities… regarded as of divine or as exemplary” (as cited in Conger, Kanungo, & Menon, 2000, p. 750); it is noted that such a definition attributes leadership to “social-cognitive processes of followers” (Goethals & Sorenson, 2006, p. 116).

Winkler (2010) points out that a new theory of charismatic leadership was created in the 1970s by House; it became the basic work for many other subsequent authors (p. 32). Still, it is notable that not much research was conducted on the issue until the 1980s, and that this research sphere started developing intensively only in the late 1980s (Conger et al., 2000, p. 747). These new studies made stress not on the social perception, but on attitudes and traits of a charismatic leader (Goethals & Sorenson, 2006, p. 116). For instance, according to the theory of Conger and Canungo, the peculiar characteristics of a charismatic leader are the ability to create and communicate an inspiring view, as well as to make their followers believe that the leader is extraordinary (as cited in Conger et al., 2000, p. 748). Such an attitude to the leader results in the followers’ willingness and gladness to obey the leader. It is also noteworthy that a charismatic leader commands respect and trust of their followers; but it is stressed that to be able to do this, the leader needs to constantly demonstrate that they care about those whom they lead (Conger et al., 2000, p. 750).

It is stated that many researchers tend to believe that a charismatic leader’s distinctive characteristics are the ability to persuade their followers in the leader’s reliability and trustworthiness, supply them with meaningful aims and examples of behavior to be followed, and change the followers’ own interests into interests of the whole group or community (Conger et al., 2000, p. 750-753).

Therefore, as we have seen, the notion of charisma was first given significant attention by Max Weber, who assumed that charisma is connected to the followers’ perceptions of the leader; Weber did not focus on the way those perceptions emerged. However, with the development of the research, the very notion of charisma was redefined; it was argued that the views of followers originate from the leader’s traits of character, not from their personality (Sankar, 2003, p. 45). It is reasonable to agree with the latter opinion, for a person’s behaviors and attitudes towards others on their own are not sufficient to create a view about this person as a leader which is worthy of being followed; on the other hand, perceived underlying values and traits of character, such as integrity, truthfulness, and virtue are sufficient to create such views.

Charismatic Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Winkler (2010) explains that, according to House’s theory, a charismatic leader needs to have the following traits: “dominance, self-security, a need to influence others, and a strong conviction in the moral integrity of his/her belief”; they also “articulate ideological goals that have strong moral overtones” or encourage others by using appreciation or power (p. 33). Sankar (2003) considers House’s theory of charismatic leadership, elaborating that it allows for existence of leaders only who wish for power and control and utilize Machiavellianism in their job; therefore, he argues that it is not charisma that should be important for a leader, but the leader’s moral character, for it is the moral character that has the potential to provide the culture of an organization with vital resources such as ethics and imagination, which is crucial for solving most problems properly (p. 47, 54). Therefore, Sankar (2003) provides scholarly criticism, according to which the underlying assumption that charismatic leaders will not overuse their power is wrong; it is still possible to use “the dark side of charisma” (p. 47). It is notable that Meindl (1990) also wrote about such an effect, explaining that in some cases overused charisma “is likely to involve elements of both behavioral and hysterical contagion”, causing harm to the followers (p. 190). Raelin (2003b) agrees with this view as well, stating that charismatic leaders often tend to overuse their power; he argues that compassionate leaders are needed instead, ones that would be humble and help their followers solve their own internal conflicts.

Another reason why humility is paramount is that the leader also needs to be a constant learner and develop their knowledge and skills in order to be able to provide vision for their followers and to be a meaning maker (Raelin, 2003a). From the practical point of view, Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld (2005) state that experience shows that sensemaking, a skill of enabling people to turn external circumstances into a comprehended situation, is essential for any leader. The fact that sensemaking, according to Raelin (2010), is egalitarian in nature, for not only an experienced leader, but anyone can become a meaning maker (p. 110), also goes against the nature of charismatic leadership, for a charismatic leader tends to occupy a higher position than their followers, even when this position is not formal. On the other hand, a compassionate leader never tries to elevate oneself above others (Raelin, 2003b). Lipman-Blumen and Leavitt (1999) also highlight the adversity of someone attempting to raise oneself above others, for it might nip a developing effective “hot group” in the bud (p. 68-69); it is clear that a “dark-side” charismatic leader (Sankar, 2003, p. 47) is quite capable of doing so, therefore disrupting positive organizational behavior.


As we have seen, the notion of charisma has ancient origins, but it was first brought up to scholarly attention only in the 20th century thanks to the works of Max Weber. Contemporary usage of the term differs from that of Weber’s, for now it is believed that charisma comes from a person’s traits of character, not personality. However, charismatic leadership might also be based on negative traits of character, which might have an adverse effect on an organization; it is stated that not being charismatic, but being compassionate and egalitarian is truly important for a leader today.


Conger, J. A., Kanungo, R. N., & Menon, S. T. (2000). Charismatic leadership and follower effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21(7), 747-767.

Goethals, G. R., & Sorenson, G. L. J. (Eds.). (2006). The quest for a general theory of leadership. Cheltenham, UK: Elgar.

Lipman-Blumen, J. & Leavitt, H. J. (1999). Hot groups “with attitude”: A new organizational state of mind, Organizational Dynamics, 27(4), 63-73.

Meindl, J.R. (1990). On leadership: An alternative to conventional wisdom. Research in Organizational Behavior, 12, 159-203.

Raelin, J. A. (2003a). Chapter 7: Collective leadership. In J. A. Raelin, Creating leaderful organizations: how to bring out leadership in everyone (pp. 138-152). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Raelin, J. A. (2003b). Chapter 9: Compassionate leadership. In J.A. Raelin, Creating leaderful organizations: how to bring out leadership in everyone (pp. 209-217). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Raelin, J. A. (2010). The leaderful fieldbook: Strategies and activities for developing leadership in everyone. London, UK: Nicholas Brealey.

Sankar, Y. (2003). Character not charisma is the critical measure of leadership excellence. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 9(4), 45-55.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421. Web.

Winkler, I. (2010). Contemporary Leadership Theories: Enhancing the Understanding of the Complexity, Subjectivity and Dynamic of Leadership. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Science & Business Media.

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