The concept of the charismatic leader captivates those who study leadership. In part, the appeal of the charismatic leader is that charisma is inherently difficult to identify, quantify and measure. We simply know it when we see it. Each leader has his or her own personal charisma, which affects his or her ability to guide and motivate the actions of others. Those with strong personalities may perhaps be better at motivating, and the result is stronger action. The charismatic leader, as noted, is also someone who can move the organization beyond the status quo. This hints that part of charisma is having vision, at least when combined with the ability to execute that vision. This paper will explore the idea of the charismatic leader.
Defining charismatic leadership
As Yukl notes, the idea of leadership itself is inherently lacking in precise definition, which creates problems for the study of leadership, since there is a gap between the desire for a scientific understanding and the inherent ambiguity of the concept. Ultimately, a leader must exert "intentional influence over other people to guide, structure, and facilitate activities and relationships in a group or organization" (Yukl, 2010). Charismatic leadership therefore can reasonably be assumed to be a leadership style that emphasizes the use of personal charisma in order to achieve these actions and results. A charismatic leader will typically emphasize an emotional reaction in the followers. There might be a compelling intellectual case for action, but the followers are driven more by the personality of the leader, and loyalty or reverence for that personality. Charisma is one of the least formal methods by which a leader can achieve the desired objectives.
A common definition of charismatic leadership is identified by Conger and Kanungo (1987) as being leadership "by the force of personal abilities capable of having profound and extraordinary effects on followers." The charismatic leader, therefore, is able to have an incremental positive effect on the organization simply by force of personality. Whether such a leader also develops excellent systems for implementing his or her ideas is not necessarily relevant -- there are charismatic leaders who have left the systems to others within the organization, and there are charismatic leaders whose organizational ineptitude ultimately led to failure despite the fervent support of followers.
Understanding what charisma is has been a challenge both for the management and social sciences branches of leadership study. There have been some attempts in the social sciences to distill charismatic leadership to the presence of particular traits. These include strong communication skills, ability to be a positive role model, ability to motivate, intellectual stimulation and responsiveness to others (Riggio, 2012). Strong communication skills can be further broken down, since most good leaders of any type will be able to communicate their ideas. The key to the charismatic leader lies with the combination of communication skills and the last two elements -- the ability to create intellectual stimulation and the ability to get response from others. The charismatic leader understands what the emotional motivators of his or her audience is, and communicates to those triggers, rather than simply communicating plans in a rational manner. Further, the charismatic leader works in a transformative way when using a structure that allows for the followers to think more freely. Such structures would tap into the intellectual abilities of the followers, putting their minds as well as their muscle to work for the cause.
Yukl (1999) notes that there remain some weaknesses with our understanding of the charismatic leader. He notes that there is a still a struggle with ambiguity as a natural part of the definition of a charismatic leader. This is only a valid concern from the lens of an observer who struggles with ambiguity. In reality, ambiguity is a natural part of human existence, and should not be classified as a problem or issue. In the real world, no human has the same level of charismatic power at all times -- the charismatic leader could be more compelling one day, less the next, and all of that could be contingent on audience, message and a whole host of other variables. This is not necessarily a problem, unless one actually wants to quantify charisma. Perhaps it is best to simply accept the inherent ambiguity of both charisma and leadership, and move forward.
Another fault that Yukl (1999) identifies in the bias towards a heroic vision of the charismatic leader. This seems to hold true because of observer bias, but ultimately charisma is something that should attract even those who are not in the organization. Some charismatic leaders are villains, for example Ciulla (2003) cites Jim Jones. That example might be a bit cherry-picked to illustrate her point about the downsides of charismatic leadership, but ultimately most people characterized as this type of leader seem to also be cast as either heroes or villains. While Yukl's point is fair and valid, it is possible to find leaders who engender strong emotional response from their followers but without falling victim to the worship that often accompanies the leader. A good example is Fred Smith of FedEx. Smith functions as a charismatic leader, but he typically maintains the focus of the emotional response more to the company than to himself. FedEx built since its early days a set of heroic legends about people in the company who went the extra mile, as part of the corporate lore. When people are inspired, then, it is less by the leader himself than by the company and systems that the leader created. This is certainly a case of charismatic leadership without the accompanying hero worship that Yukl rightly criticizes.
In a sense, there are two main ways to understand charismatic leadership, one based on the input and one based on the output. The input-based view would be to see the charismatic leader as defining charismatic leadership. If a charismatic leader is present, even if that individual lacks the enthusiasm and communication skills one would normally want in such a leadership style, then there is charismatic leadership. To take the opposite view, charismatic leadership could be defined more as a situation where the followers idolize or have an emotional response to someone's leadership. The latter opens up the possibility that the leader might not be charismatic, or might not be a person at all, but is simply part of the organization's lore. In either case, charisma is much more than simply talking well -- it involves inspiration, emotional response and motivation on a personal level beyond structures and systems. Looking at outputs for charismatic leadership means going beyond the output measures that Yukl (2010) identifies, which are typically numeric like revenue, profit margin, market share, etc. Charismatic leadership is measured in other types of measures as well, including loyalty, enthusiasm of the workforce, and other more subjective measures.
Ethics of Charismatic Leadership
The ethics of charismatic leadership do not differ much from the ethics of any other type of leadership. Effective leaders, whether through formal authority and intellectual techniques, or through an emphasis on charisma, both seek the same outcomes. They want their organizations to behave in a certain way, and that way can be positive or negative on the ethical scale. There are examples of ethically positive charismatic leaders, ethically neutral ones and those who seek outcomes that would seem unethical, as Ciulla (2003) points out.
Ciulla does a good job of introducing some of the considerations that go into whether charismatic leadership is good or bad for society. To make such an evaluation, the ethical framework needs to be understood. Ciulla discusses Kant, for example, and Aristotle to help understand ethics. Leaders have the ability to induce their followers to do things that society might find to be against their ethical codes, but leaders also have the ability to do things that society needs. There is always going to be the risk that leaders will guide their followers the wrong way, but that risk cannot be eliminated.
Society needs leaders of all types and capabilities. That there is risk of unethical behavior is not something that can be attributed to any one particular type of leadership. Remember that even something as religion can be used as a tool for unethical behavior, whether there is charismatic leadership or not. Any institution or person with influence can create poor behavior in a follower, and any person can commit unethical acts without any leadership at all. Thus, it is difficult to conclude that there is any inherent problem with charismatic leaders and unethical behavior. Charismatic leaders do have the ability to guide their followers, sometimes with fervent behavior. There clear examples where such individuals have incited their followers to do horrible things, so clearly charismatic leadership is not always good. But it can be good, and is usually just ethically neutral, so it is impossible to level too much criticism for charismatic leadership. Further, the issue is moot. There will be charismatic leaders whether they are regarded positively or not.…