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Charismatic Leaders:


Insights on Charismatic Leadership from the Heroes and Villains

By JOHNNY WELCH, M.B.A., Ed.D. | Last Updated: June 19, 2013

"Charisma...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."

—Max Weber, German political economist and sociologist who popularized the term charisma (See On Charisma and Institution Building)

Charismatic Political Leaders

The Charismatic Leadership of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte:

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)—

  On the Charisma of Napoleon Bonaparte:   (Click Here)
  1. Charismatic Leaders are Revolutionary: Charismatic leaders rarely, if ever, are found defending the status quo. In contrast, charismatic leaders are almost always about revolution, innovation or some kind of significant change. "The charismatic, revolutionary hero, Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon, with a new court, new legal codes, a new educational system, and a new administration." The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, pg. 198.
  2. An Emotional Connection with Followers: "Charisma is an emotional bond among co-present actors and, therefore, differs from context to context in idiosyncratic ways. Consequently, what counts as charismatic in one case--Charles de Gaulle's towering frame--may well appear as counterintuitive in another--Napoleon Bonaparte's shortness." -Charismatic Leadership and Social Movements: The Revolutionary Power of Ordinary Men and Women, Pg. 167.
  3. Successful Results: Like beauty, charisma is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, when the leader is unable to continue to produce results, the "magic" stops and the followers no longer perceive the leader as charismatic (This is part of the story of Sarah Palin as well as Barack Obama—the moment leaders stops producing results, their charisma begins to fade.). "As Weber observed, charismatic leadership obtains devotion from followers by seeming to be able to perform miracles. According to Weber, the personal leader possesses magical charisma, is heroic, and specifically extraordinary. The most interesting difference between ordinary social power and charismatic leadership is that charisma is temporary. [...] According to Max Weber retention of this power by the leader depends upon the continuing affirmation of his disciples. When the miracles stop, the magic evaporates, a challenger overcomes the leader, the crisis ends, or the enemies win, his charisma wanes and the extraordinary person reverts to ordinary status. [...] Even Weber's archetype of the charismatic leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, could not work miracles forever." -Tabernacle of Hate: Seduction Into Right-Wing Extremism, Pg.xxi.

Charismatic Leadership of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt:

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)—

  On the Charisma of Theodore Roosevelt:   (Click Here)
  1. Broadcast Your Personality: Part of attracting people to the leader's vision is spreading the word and broadcasting the personality of the leader. Theodore Roosevelt was often considered charismatic among the circles he traveled, but when he was able to project his personality through the press and the media, then he was able to drawn in a much wider audience and base of support. "TR seized new opportunities for publicity through the mass media, to which he owed much for his fame and his charisma." -America Ascendant: From Theodore Roosevelt to FDR in the Century of American Power, 1901-1945, Pg. 49.

Leadership Lessons from Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill:

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)—

  On the Charisma of Winston Churchill:   (Click Here)
  1. Recognize that Some Will Resist Charisma: Some people and groups will resist the charismatic leader as a charismatic. These are usually the people who attempt to downplay or discount their emotions, elevating logic and reason. This is not to say, however, that they will not still feel an underlying pull toward charismatics. This, in part, helps to explain Churchill's experience in England. As much as the British people admired and respected Churchill, they tended as a whole to lean more toward a rational appraisal of Churchill as a leader. Thus, they judged him to be the leader they needed in war, but not in peace. Ann Ruth Willner writes: "In my initial version of this study I referred to Churchill as a possible situational charismatic. It was tempting to envision him as one of a long line of legendary and historic heroes, starting with St. George, who came to the rescue of England in her time of desperation. Unable, however, to find evidence of charismatically oriented perceptions of Churchill by his countrypeople, I also suggested that the British may not be susceptible to charismatic affect, that they can admire and esteem but not adore. This suggestion has since been confirmed by Dennis Kavanagh in his study of Churchill's leadership." -Willner, Ruth Ann (1985). The Spellbinders: Charismatic Political Leadership Pg. 41.

Leadership Lessons from the Kremlin Highlander

Joseph Stalin:

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)—

  On the Charisma of Joseph Stalin:   (Click Here)
  1. Charisma Often Masks Insecurity: One of the dangers or problems with charisma is that it often masks a deep inner sense of insecurity. This, of course, in and of itself is not bad. In fact, leaders who learn to project their best most confident, charismatic selves in spite of doubts or a lack of confidence is often effective self-impression management. However, there is also a risk to followers. A leader with deep insecurities may act out in ways that are harmful to their followers or even society as a whole. This is very often the problem with charismatic dictators. "Stalin as the Great Leader offered [the Soviet people] the reassurance they craved. The irony, of course, is that in this guise Stalin projected a perverse kind of charisma that disguised his own very real and fundamental sense of insecurity. For he, above all people, knew that the love and veneration offered up to him was for "Stalin," the figure of longing at the center of an artificial cult..." Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion, Pg. 268.

Leadership Lessons from the Revolutionary Leadership of FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)—

  On the Charisma of Franklin D. Roosevelt:   (Click Here)
  1. Dealing with Opposition and Dissent: Charismatic leaders are often divisive figures who must learn to deal with dissent. All leaders have their critics and opponents and, in many cases, outright enemies; and, usually, the greater more powerful the leader the stronger the opposition. This is also true for charismatic leaders. Heale writes of Roosevelt: "If his enemies reviled him with a chilling bitterness, this was in part because his confidence and charisma early made him a president of massive stature. The poet Carl Sandburg in a radio broadcast in 1940 spoke of the president as 'a not perfect man and yet more precious than fine gold.'" Clearly, Roosevelt's "massive stature," along with his New Deal program, was a threat to many powerful interests and resulted in a great deal of dissent. -Franklin D. Roosevelt: The New Deal and War, Pg. 4.

Charismatic Leadership Lessons from Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini:

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)—

  On the Charisma of Benito Mussolini:   (Click Here)
  1. Compelling Personality: A key part of charisma is a compelling personality. Describing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as "two of the most well-known and notorious charismatic leaders of the 20th century," Daniel Price writes: "The ability to engender loyalty and obedience based on the force of personality has been present in many secular leaders." But what is "the force of personality" really? Part of this has to do with the charismatic leader's ability to elicit emotions in others. It is natural to elicit emotions in others, often without trying. The difference is that charismatics easily control the emotions they elicit. They can play the emotions of others (not all), like a piano. They are also able to elicit stronger emotions than most people. Whether it is because of the intensity of their own emotions (not necessarily flamboyant, one's emotions can be intense yet subtle) or a more obvious emotional state (excitement, passion, anger, etc.). Price, Daniel E. (2012). Sacred Terror. Pg. 33.

Charismatic Leadership Lessons from General Patton

George Patton:

George Smith Patton, Jr. (1885-1945)—

  On the Charisma of George Patton:   (Click Here)
  1. Supportive: Regardless of the tough exterior some charismatic leaders display, all charismatic leaders are supportive toward their people. This does not mean that they are never tough or that they do not push their people hard—they very often do. But it means that at the core of charismatic leaders' effort is a concern for their people and a motivation to support them. "A ferocious disciplinarian, Patton always insisted on his men wearing correct uniforms. He also cultivated an inspiring presence, assiduously visiting forward units and imbuing his speeches to the troops with a charisma that transcended his surprisingly high-pitched voice. Although in private he could be sensitive and thoughtful, in public his speech was laced with obscenities and aggressive, bloodthirsty remarks."1

  2. Sources:
    1. Grant, R.G. (2013). Commanders: History's Greatest Military Leaders. Pg. 322.

Leadership Lessons from the Failures of Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler:

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)—

  On the Charisma of Adolf Hitler:   (Click Here)
  1. Articulate the Needs of the People: As cruel and callous as dictators can be, they often gain power by appearing as aggressive advocates of the needs of their followers. "Although man in the English-speaking world thought Mussolini and Hitler absurd, the two dictators expressed deeply felt needs within their own societies, being especially charismatic speakers to the national audiences of their day." -America Ascendant: From Theodore Roosevelt to FDR in the Century of American Power, 1901-1945, Pg. 384.
  2. Please Note: Hitler is widely regarded as one of the most evil leaders in history—and we agree. Many people are, as a consequence, completely offended when people try to learn anything at all from such a man as this—here, we disagree. On the contrary, we think it is a mistake not to try to learn how such leaders were able to hold such power over their people and, thereby, commit such atrocious acts. Charisma is a kind of tool that can be used for good or evil. Therefore, it is better to understand how it can be used so that we may be more enabled to prevent its hold over us if and when we must.

Charismatic Leadership Lessons from Charles De Gaulle

Charles De Gaulle:

Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970)—

  On the Charisma of Charles De Gaulle:   (Click Here)
  1. Be Slightly Mysterious: There is something alluring about that which is foreign or mysterious. We are bored with that which we have entirely figured out. The charismatic French general and statesman, Charles De Gaulle, explains it himself: "First and foremost, there can be no prestige without mystery, for familiarity breeds contempt. All religions have their holy of holies, and no man is a hero to his valet. In the designs, the demeanor, and the mental operations of a leader there must always be a 'something' which others cannot altogether fathom, which puzzles them, stirs them, and rivets their attention..."1

  2. Sources:
    1. Rees, Laurence (2013). Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss. Pg. 32.

Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Revolutionary Leadership of Huey Long

Huey Long:

Huey Long (1893-1935)—

  On the Charisma of Huey Long:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from John Kennedy

John F. Kennedy:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1961)—

  On the Charisma of John F. Kennedy:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Revolutionary Leadership of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela:

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-)—

  On the Charisma of Nelson Mandela:   (Click Here)
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The Charismatic Leadership of Eva Peron

Eva Peron:

Maria Eva Duarte de Perón (1919-1952)—

  On the Charisma of Eva Peron:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Failure of Idi Amin
[Caricature: E.S.Valtman]

Idi Amin:

Idi Amin Dada (c. 1925-2003)—

  On the Charisma of Idi Amin:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from Malcolm X

Malcolm X:

Malcolm Little "Malcolm X" (1925-1965)—

  On the Charisma of Malcolm X:   (Click Here)
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Leadership Lessons from RFK

Robert F. Kennedy:

Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968)—

  On the Charisma of Robert Kennedy:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Failures of Pol Pot

Pol Pot:

Saloth Sar "Pol Pot" (1925-1998)—

  On the Charisma of Pol Pot:   (Click Here)
  1. Comfortable in One's Own Skin: Charismatic people, with very few exceptions, appear comfortable with themselves and their environment, regardless of where the are. This is just as true for the polished urbane politician as it is for the cruel, ruthless dictator. Becker writes: "Although I had heard stories of Pol Pot's charisma I had doubted them on the basis of the few mugshots of the man I had seen published. But in person there was no question of his appeal. Physically, he had a strong, comfortable appearance. His gestures and manner were polished, not crude. There was no question of his aloofness, however. He smiled and nodded through a few pleasantries, briefly, while we drank the fresh orange juice placed before us." Becker, Elizabeth (1998). When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution. Pg. 424.

Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Revolutionary Leadership of Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro:

Fidel Castro (1926-)—

  On the Charisma of Fidel Castro:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Revolutionary Leadership of Che

Che Guevara:

Che Guevara (1928-1967)—

  On the Charisma of Che Guevara:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from MLK

Martin Luther King Jr.:

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)—

  On the Charisma of Martin Luther King Jr.:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from Comeback Kid

Bill Clinton:

William Jefferson Clinton (1946-)—

  On the Charisma of Bill Clinton:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from the Governator

Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947-)—

  On the Charisma of Arnold Schwarzenegger:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from Obama

Barack Obama:

Barack Obama (1961-)—

  On the Charisma of Barack Obama:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leadership Lessons from Sarah Barracuda

Sarah Palin:

Sarah Louise Palin (1964-)—

  On the Charisma of Sarah Palin:   (Click Here)
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Charismatic Leaders from History

  1. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
  2. Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
  3. Julius Caesar "Dictator for Life" (100-44BC)

Charismatic Cult Leaders

  1. Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012)
  2. Jim Jones (1931-1978)
  3. Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997)
  4. Charles Manson (1934- )
  5. David Koresh (1959-1993)

Charismatic Religious Leaders

  1. Moses (13th/12 Century)
  2. King David I (c.1035 - 972 BC)
  3. Siddhartha Gautama "Buddha" (563 - 483 BCE)
  4. Jesus Christ (0-33)

The Five Qualities of Charismatic Leadership

—Research reveals the following as the five most commonly cited qualities or traits of the charismatic leader:
  1. Self-Confident
  2. Inspirational
  3. Articulate
  4. Revolutionary
  5. Supportive
Researchers also frequently refer to charismatic leaders as goal-oriented, innovative, enthusiastic, determined and persuasive. Yet, this is still not enough. Charismatic leaders are also believed to be highly visionary and there are a number of characteristics or dimensions to a charismatic leader's vision which are instrumental in fostering a charismatic relationship with followers. Want to learn more?
Are you interested in learning how charisma can be used to help in your work? Contact us to learn more.
  Are Charismatic Leaders Dangerous to Democracy?

Democracy or Dictatorship

The concept of leadership in a democracy can be highly problematic.792 Benjamin Barber (2004), a prominent democratic scholar, suggests that: "A leader strong enough to do everything we would like done for us is strong enough to deprive us of the capacity to do anything at all for ourselves."794 Ruscio (2004), writing in The Leadership Dilemma in Modern Democracy, also captures the prevalent skepticism well:

"Suspicion of rulers, concern over their propensity to abuse power in their own self-interest, the need to hold them accountable, and the belief that legitimate power is lodged originally in the people and granted to leaders only with severe contingencies, all are fixed stars in the democratic galaxy. In many respects, democracy came about as the remedy to the problem of leadership, at least as defined by a long list of political philosophers. Fear of leadership is a basic justification for democratic forms of government."786

Perhaps this fear is even more intense in the presence of the wildly popular and powerful charismatic leader. Fond of quoting the Mexican revolutionary leader Zapata who said, "strong leaders make a weak people;"789 Barber, is notoriously uncomfortable with leadership in a democracy.790 Barber (2003) writes: "The statesmanship of a leader such as Churchill may stultify the liberty of an admiring but passive followership no less than might the charisma of a Hitler."791

Similarly, Gary Wills, the renowned Kennedy biographer, in his study of charismatic political leadership and American democracy writes: "we do the most damage under the Presidents we love most."793

Arthur Schlesinger, a former adviser to President Kennedy also had a healthy skepticism of charismatic leadership in democracy. Schiffer (1973) writes: "Schlesinger, quite articulate in this direction, has argued that in modern society there exists a practical dominance of forces, personality appeals, and policies that leaves no room whatever for charisma, because charisma is basically incapable of dealing with the realities of a democratic culture."795

So, then, does charismatic leadership have a place in democracy? The question, though openly debated, has been far from sufficiently addressed. Nonetheless, support, however tempered, clearly exists. Even Schlesinger, paradoxically, who leaves "no room" for charisma, thought there might be a role for the charismatic leader in times of crisis.797 Moreover, there are a number of arguments put forth (including by Max Weber himself) which undeniably suggest that charismatic leadership has a critically important role in democracy.

  Are there Different Types of Charismatic Leadership?

The Two Faces of Charisma

On the question of charismatic leadership in a democracy, though many of the leading thinkers seem to come down more definitively on one side or the other, there are at least a few (myself included) who are quick to say that it very much depends on the type of charismatic leadership (an important part of the research problem this study seeks to address) or, even more to the point, that it is a matter of degree.

University of California Professor, Elizabeth Zechmeister (2006) weighs in: "Charismatic leadership in itself is not at all antithetical to democracy. However, in its extreme form, which is usually in times of crisis, and coupled with a leader who inherently has instinctive charismatic tendencies, it certainly can be somewhat dangerous."788

Perhaps the "it depends" argument for charismatic leadership in democracy is most vivid by juxtaposing the impact that different highly charismatic leaders have had on their own governments. Here we can call to mind the different consequences of Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler or John Kennedy and Joseph Stalin. If there is merit to the psychoanalytic interpretation of charismatic leadership and the followers of charismatics are "neutral as to the content of the leader's message or vision"992 (no matter how dastardly), then this would certainly seem to intensify the importance of further study and the potential threat that charismatic leadership may pose to an open and democratic society.

It seems, in regards to charismatic political leadership, that a healthy skepticism, a heightened awareness and a robust understanding of the different types as well as the responsibilities of followers and of citizenship are all essential to the preservation of a free and open society.

As Arthur Schlesinger writes: "An adequate democratic theory must recognize that democracy is not self-executing; that leadership is not the enemy of self-government but the means of making it work; that followers have their own stern obligation, which is to keep leaders within rigorous constitutional bounds; and that Caesarism is more often produced by the failure of feeble governments than by the success of energetic ones."787

  Background and Overview of Charismatic Leadership


Beginning with the mythological and theological origins of the concept, this section briefly traces the history of the term charisma and the study of charismatic leadership as it takes root with Weber and begins to spread beyond the realm of religion and politics. This section will conclude with a brief overview of how the concept of charismatic leadership has been variously adapted, differentiated and even transformed (or, perhaps, diluted and distorted) in more recent times.


The conception of charisma can be traced back to ancient Greece.813 In Greek mythology, the three daughters of Dionysus and Aphrodite, known as the Charis or the Charites (the derivation of the term charisma, which is Greek for "Graces" ), are the goddesses of charm, beauty, nature and human creativity.814 Though, as personified concepts, the Charites are said to embody these same wholesome qualities—and even "purity and altruism"817—the Charis goddesses are also often associated with Hades, the underworld, and the cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries—secret initiation ceremonies which "included promises of divine power."815

Saint Paul of Tarsus (often referred to as Paul the Apostle) also played a vital role in the early conceptualization of charisma. The Apostle Paul, who was at once a well-educated Roman citizen of the first century (who lived until circa 64 or 65 A.D.) who studied under the renowned rabbi Gamaliel818 and who was also an authority on the Greco-Roman culture and language, was one of the foremost authors of the epistles in the New Testament.819 Paul, who wrote extensively in the New Testament on the concept of grace and the "gifts of the Holy Spirit," and whose "writings come to us clothed in the Greek language,"820 adopts the term charisma (with its' mythological origins821) to explain extraordinary and supernatural gifts of divine origin.847 Paul was also the first, in an effort to secure his own apostolic credentials, to hold up charisma as a legitimate source of authority; effectively avowing that there exists no more elevated source of holiness than the spiritual gifts of grace.823 Thus, riding on the coattails of the early Christian church and its rapid expansion in the Roman Empire, the conceptualization of charisma as a supernatural gift of grace, and the prima facie divinely legitimate source of authority, comes to full life.

Nonetheless, even bathed in the "Good News" of Christianity, the concept of charisma does not shake the early revealing allusions to a darker side found in Greek and Roman mythology. One such reference, for example, can be found in a terse comment in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1930) which states: "It may be added that in later Greek charis also had the sense of force or power. It could be a spell, or demonic force, affecting human life with supernatural influences.[emphasis added]"816

The importance of the topic of charisma does not surface again until the end of the 19th century with the writings of Rudolf Sohm (1841–1917), a German jurist and member of the faculties of law at a few of Germany's most distinguished universities, including Göttingen, Freiburg, and Leipzig. Sohm, as a law professor of some renown (and a bit of a church historian), enters into the controversy of the authority of the early church with the publication of Kirchenrecht (Canon Law) in 1892 in which he builds on Martin Luther's distinction between the "Two Kingdoms."824 In Sohm's endeavor to preserve the "invisible church" (the body of Christ) from the political powers of the state (which often infiltrate through the "law of the church" or the church as an "external institution"),825 he revives the term charisma from the heritage of Paul's epistles and ends up advocating for a kind pneumatocracy (rule by the Spirit).826 Though Sohm hopes to safeguard what he sees as the legitimate authority of a Spirit-centered charismatic community from descending toward a legalistic institution and, in due course, devolving into what has been described as "a worldly, secular authority and organization, a second state, as it were, exercising legal control, including coercion, over its members;"827 the upshot of Sohm's interpretation is uncertain. It may be, as Smith (1998) suggests, that Sohm further concretized a type of authoritarian charismatic leadership which is entirely closed and impervious to the will and voice of the people.828 However, Sohm was far from the final influence over the meaning of charisma.


Though the Janusian origins of the term charisma are relevant to the purpose of this research and may offer some insight into the nature of thought behind the concept and its tendency to evoke confusion and controversy in the research; it is not until the writings of Max Weber (1864-1920) that the theory of charisma becomes a more fully fledged area of theoretical and practical interest.860 Indeed, Weber is the customary starting point for those writing on the topic of charisma830 (with more than a few authors erroneously suggesting that Weber coined the term).829 Though the two men traveled in the same circle of friends and intellectuals and Weber openly credits Sohm in his work,844 Weber's ideas and writings were in some important ways at odds with Sohm.833 Weber writes: "It is to Rudolf Sohm's credit that he worked out the sociological character of this kind of domination; however, since he developed this category with regard to one historically important case—the rise of the ecclesiastical authority of the early Christian church—this treatment was bound to be one-sided from the viewpoint of historical diversity."863 And though Weber's modified conceptualizations were not universally well-received they clearly have much broader appeal.

A Few of Weber's Key Ideas

Though Weber undoubtedly stood on the shoulders of the ancient Greeks, Saint Paul, Rudolf Sohm and others,832 his contribution to our understanding of charismatic leadership today is profound and unparalleled for a variety of reasons including, in part, the originality of his conceptualizations and analysis which includes, as Lindholm (1990) writes, a number of new beginnings: "In fact, Max Weber was the first to introduce the term "charisma" into sociology, the first to attempt to analyze the inner content of the charismatic's character, the first to argue that charisma implies a relationship between the great man and the followers, and the first to place the charismatic within a social context [emphasis added]."831 In addition to these firsts, Weber's writings on charisma have been instrumental in other ways as well. For our purposes here, this section will focus only on those elements of Weber's thinking believed to be most relevant to this study.


Arguably one of the most significant contributions of Weber to the study of charismatic leadership was his secularization of the concept.836 Allowing for the individual who is "…treated as endowed with…at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities" and, moreover, including "…a variety of different types as being endowed with charisma in this sense;" Weber recast the charismatic phenomenon as something that could manifest in a wide variety of areas outside of religion.834 Weber writes: "Sociological analysis, which must abstain from value judgments, will treat all these on the same level as the men who, according to conventional judgments, are the 'greatest' heroes, prophets, and saviours."835

The Power and Legitimacy of Leadership

Another pivotal contribution (as briefly mentioned above) is Weber's justification and emphasis on the importance of the leader and his or her role in society.838 That leadership itself could serve as a legitimate basis of authority, particularly within democracy, helped to elevate the study of leadership as a central factor within and beyond political science and sociology.849 Moreover, that the legitimacy of the leader's authority, to a remarkable extent, is a result of the sheer force of the leader's personality839 was another aspect of Weber's thinking which also helped to reignite interest in political leadership (that this legitimacy was grounded in the perception or "belief" of the leader's followers also likely helped the concept to gain currency in a way that Nietzsche's superman or Carlyle's hero could not).

The Social Construction of Leadership

The "social construction" of charismatic leadership is another critical aspect of Weber's thinking as it relates to this research and is, moreover, an element of Weber's conceptualization of leadership which helps to separate it from the "Great Man Theories" of leadership.861 Unlike Saint Paul and Rudolf Sohm, who seem to have taken a much more inviolate, top-down view of the leader's charisma—perhaps presupposing, given their exclusively religious interpretation of charisma, that any supernatural or divine giftedness would be readily apparent to all—Weber unambiguously asserted the role of the people and their perceptions of the leader's charisma as well as the leader's continued ability to deliver on their behalf as confirmation of the individual's charismatic authority.845 Weber writes: "What is alone important is how the individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his 'followers' or 'disciples.'"837

Different Types of Charismatic Leadership

A final, yet critical, contribution to the study of charismatic leadership is Weber's acceptance of different types of charisma. Not only did Weber allow for different types of charismatic leadership based on distinct contexts (religious, political, military, etc.) and attitudes of followers,850 but he also allowed for different types within the same context—and even went as far as alluding to a distinction between democratic and dictatorial charisma (a critical distinction for this study). Moreover, Glassman and Swatos (1986) suggest further that "on the one hand he presents us with examples of berserk warrior leaders, linked obviously with the blood-lust, slaughter, rape and pillage of conquest; on the other, religious prophets, linked with the extension of ethical codes and the inculcation of social justice."1344 Nonetheless, I have found that this aspect of Weber's thinking is given scant attention in the literature, particularly from scholars working in the fields of management and organizational behavior.858 We will explore Weber's distinction in more detail below as it is an integral part of the problem and purpose of this research.

Critical Assessment

Much attention has been given to Max Weber's theory of charismatic leadership and, as one might expect in the scholarly literature, his theory has also received some significant criticisms. A short list of Weber's ideas or positions, specifically in regards to charismatic authority or charismatic leadership, that have been a fairly frequent target of scholarly criticism and debate include the following: Weber's contention (widely accepted today) that charismatic leadership, in addition to the vitally important religious contexts, is also deeply meaningful outside of religious contexts;854 the argument that charismatic leadership can arise within existing institutions rather than, as Weber had it, strictly external to or outside current arrangements;856 Weber's insistence on a context or conditions of crisis as a necessary precursor to the charismatic phenomenon;857 and Weber's arguments about the "revolutionary impact" of charismatic leadership.859 Two criticisms put forth against Weber which are directly related to this study include: his alleged focus, as Schweitzer (1984) has them, on "typical characteristics"855 and the apparent yet rather ambiguous distinctions between democratic and despotic "interpretations" of charismatic authority.853


The study of charisma was greatly accelerated following the work of Weber (particularly subsequent to the translations of his work from German to English and their appearance in U.S. markets). Next, we will review the spreading of the literature on charismatic leadership to other disciplines and some of the key ideas that surfaced and were developed in these literatures.


Though Weber's work was critical to the development and general investigation of charismatic leadership, the increasing interest in other fields helped to further legitimize the phenomenon as a meaningful area of study and has also greatly enhanced our understanding of the phenomenon. This section traces the post-Weber development into what is today a much more interdisciplinary focus of investigation.

Sociology and Political Science

Beginning not long after translations arrived in the United States (near the end of the 1940s), Weber's writings on charismatic leadership began to gain the attention of scholars working in the fields of political science and sociology.865 This period, spanning roughly two to three decades, the period in which political and sociological theories were dominant,885 was in part marked by the search for a universal set of characteristics or personality traits of the charismatic leader.866

Though the investigation into the traits of the charismatic leader (as well as a number of other theoretical approaches to the study875) would prove to be an enduring fascination;867 at this stage, with such a great diversity of charismatic leaders,887 and with investigations focused on the personality and traits revealing a paucity of conclusive results,868 the search for common characteristics proved daunting.

It was around this time, in part through the work of Willner (1965),886 that many sociologists and political scientists turned back to Weber's insistence on the follower's perceptions of the leader.869 Despite the recognition of the significance of the follower's beliefs; the importance and emphasis on the charismatic relationship—as well as the important role of followers in that relationship—would not become a central focus of charismatic theory and research until much later. Nonetheless, this period as a whole was an important stage in the development of the field and is marked by a considerable burgeoning of interest in the topic with a clear sense of curiosity about the charismatic phenomenon itself.888


Scholars working in the field of psychology also revealed an early interest in Weber's theory of charisma.874 The dominant focus in this area is on the inner psychology of the leader and the followers. Psychological approaches to charismatic leadership seem to have a greater tendency to recognize and grapple with the different types of charismatic leadership, taking a particular interest in the "dark side"870 of charisma and often tracing the charismatic relationship back to the leader's childhood and the leader's dominant relationships with his or her mother or father or some other influential authority figure (We will return to these distinctions in more detail below.).

Some of the criticisms of the psychological approaches to the study of charismatic leadership are targeted at what is believed to be a misguided narrowing of focus.871 These critiques contest that charismatic leadership is a deeply complex phenomenon often significantly influenced by the broader social, political and economic landscape—a contention with which Weber would certainly agree.872 Others suggest that the psychological approaches offer invaluable insight and are better cast as complementary to the broader sociological or political perspectives of the charismatic phenomenon.873 Either way, the psychological approach to the study of charismatic leadership has also proved to fashion an enduring allure in the research of charismatic leadership.

Management and Organizational Psychology

While the study of charismatic leadership was silently spreading through the social sciences in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the spark had yet to catch fire in the field of management or social and organizational psychology.896 Many researchers and theorists in this field, moving beyond the early trait theory research and moving through the early situational and contingency theories began to feel a sense of despair about the field of leadership as a whole,890 leading to questions and even books like McCall's (1978), Leadership: Where Do We Go From Here?891

Perhaps, bogged down by what some came to think of as the "trivial behavior"893 of individuals inside organizations or perhaps feeling a general "disillusionment" "with the over-abundance of 0.3 correlations;"894 there seemed to be a yearning for a more deeply meaningful perspective on leadership in organizations or what David Berlew, "the first management theorist to discuss charismatic leadership in some detail [emphasis added]"892 referred to in an influential article by the same title as "Leadership and Organizational Excitement." "Up to this point, there was very little discussion of charisma and related topics in the management literature."895

Looking back today, it was also around this time that a number of authors detect a noticeable shift in the scholarly research, especially subsequent to the writings of House (1977)876 and Burns (1978),877 a shift which, for those theorists working in the fields management and organizational behavior, worked to reignite interest in the study of leadership, in general, and charismatic leadership, in particular.878 In Burns' Pulitzer prize winning Leadership (1978) he "…described charismatic political leadership as a form of transforming leadership…" a concept which helped to stimulate fresh and innovative approaches to the study of leadership in organizations.1012 And though Burns is a political scientist by training and background, his work had an enormous influence on leadership scholars working across the universe of academic literatures, including those predominantly housed in business schools and departments of management and organizational psychology. It is during this period that the focus on the charismatic relationship—the interplay between the leader and the followers—becomes a leading interest.862 This is also the period in which scholars begin to adopt less strict definitions of the term charisma in order "…to provide a way to examine extraordinary leadership in the realm of business, a domain in which even exceptional leaders would rarely, if ever, meet the requirements of a restrictive definition."911 As a result, the management literature in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s is marked by a swelling of interest in traditional approaches to charismatic leadership as well as the "paradigm shift to new leadership in the 1980s," which we will examine next.


The next period is marked by the proliferation of significant interdisciplinary interest in charismatic leadership theory and research. One central conspicuous aspect of this period is the unrestrained eruption of a rich yet challenging variety of conflicting and frequently indistinct positions and theoretical conceptualizations of charismatic leadership. This section will briefly review some of these developments and their collateral challenges with the aim of highlighting the need for greater understanding and collaborative research in the field and concluding the background overview of charismatic leadership.

The Challenge of Ongoing Difference and Disagreement

Though the manifold and multifaceted dimensions of the charismatic phenomenon are evident in the roots and early study of charisma, in particular the writings of Max Weber; the increased interest that manifests across disciplines in the 1980s and 1990s is accompanied by a range and diversity yet unseen in the literature. The ostensibly incessant formulation of alternative variations—which are often inconsistent and incongruent, if not contentiously conflicting904—has consequences that can be both constructive and detrimental to the field. Burns (1978) writes: "The concept of charisma has fertilized the study of leadership. Its very ambiguity has enabled it to be captured by scholars in different disciplines and applied to a variety of situations."912 Yet, Burns continues, "the term has taken on a number of different but overlapping meanings…" and become "…so overburdened as to collapse under close analysis…" to the point of becoming "…impossible to restore…to analytic duty."913

While the interest and innovation in the study of charisma continues to spread, long after Burns'914 piercing criticism, and the variation in contexts and methodologies continues to increase; the challenges of coming to a greater shared understanding continues to intensify.864 Particularly during the last twenty years or so, the amount of research has swelled greatly.879 And, yet, as if the goal is to meet the demands of the consumer market898 rather than to augment and enhance our collective understanding; the research tends (and is sometimes prodded899) more toward disagreement and difference with the frequent cost of failing to build and advance the field (This is not to suggest, however, that the field should go to the other extreme (see next section) or that difference and disagreement cannot be equally constructive; only that it should not be pursued as an end in itself but, rather, more purposefully, within the context and overall aim of the academic disciplines—that is the endless and often elusive quest for knowledge and truth).

Confusion and Criticisms of the Conglomeration of Theories

Further confounding the already bewildering and diverse array of conceptual formulations and theoretical deviations is not necessarily1006 the emergence of transformational leadership in itself (which has been a great boon to the field) but the misguided and haphazard agglomeration of charismatic leadership903 together with transformational leadership in addition to inspirational and visionary901 leadership. This controversial conglomeration884 with charismatic leadership has been labeled the "neo-Weberian,"880 the "neocharismatic leadership paradigm"881 or even simply the "new paradigm."882 This new "well-researched" paradigm, however, is far from universally well-received.883

No doubt there is value in organization and classification and, when discussing the admittedly expansive field of leadership studies, it may certainly be useful to refer to common labels for broadly distinguishing between different paradigms, approaches, theories or types of leadership. However, when the categorization is haphazardly or brusquely applied, when there is a failure to create important subcategories and a coherent framework902 and when the categories include the consolidation of distinctly discrete conceptualizations of leadership which were already being confused in the literature;900 the benefits of creating a new "paradigm" can be outweighed by the problems it creates, including "conceptual confusion"906 and "ambiguous constructs"907 which are increasingly endemic in the field.908 This, I believe, is the case with the "neocharismatic leadership paradigm" that emerged in the 1990s. Moreover, I wholeheartedly concur with Beyer (1999) who argues that the "new paradigm" should not "be treated as a substitute for Weber's ideas" and that "paying more attention to neglected aspects of his original conception would help to retain the distinctive value of the charisma construct."1008

The Rising Interest in Different Types

In this most recent period, which continues on into the early part of the 21st century, we begin to see an increase in the acknowledgement, interest and effort to make distinctions between different types of charismatic leadership. With roots in the very birth of the term charisma as well as the writings of Weber; the acknowledgment of distinctly different types of charismatic leadership begins to attract increased interest with the writings of Burns (1978), and gains even greater traction with the work of Willner (1984) and Schweitzer (1984). According to Popper (2000), "probably the most theoretically prominent distinction between the different "faces" of charisma was presented by Howell (1988), who distinguished personalized charismatic leaders and socialized charismatic leaders."915

Not incidentally, this period also begins to see increasing criticisms of "value-free" conceptualizations of charisma.1013 One particular criticism excoriates the efforts frequently found in the management literature to train managers to be charismatic without considering the "dark side" of charisma—which, according to at least one scholar, is tantamount to the manipulation tactics and philosophy of control famously depicted in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.1138

In the beginning, with roots in Weber, the distinctions center around different types as related to different stages of the phenomenon (pure charisma versus the routinization of charisma) and the extent to which charisma is "alien to democracy." What is interesting here is that the focus on different types seems to emerge as a response to some of the prevailing criticisms of Weber's theory of charisma which assert that his theory: 1.) is not an observable, measurable phenomenon 2.) has little explanatory capacity 3.) is irrelevant outside of religion and 4.) is incongruent with democracy and 5.) is inherently dictatorial. As a rejoinder, some theorists sought a more comparative approach to the study of the phenomenon. In my own view, the emergence of a theoretically dichotomous or comparative, paired-opposite approach, juxtaposed against or placed in the context of diverse political regimes helped to subdue some of the criticisms and allowed for a more rigorous scientific analysis of charismatic leadership.

The interest in different types of charismatic leadership, which gains some momentum across disciplines in the 1980s, is expressed in a range of different focal points, a great many of which focus on the moral and ethical differences in type. And though there is certainly great value in endeavoring to tackle the moral and ethical dimensions and differences in charismatic leadership; as Allix (2000) articulates in his criticisms of Burns (1978) conception of transformational leadership,905 adopting a predominantly moral position (within the worldview and confines of the social sciences), entails the risk of devolving into a slippery subjective and morally arbitrary slope teeming with challenging empirical and methodological issues.1338 Although perhaps the effort by Weber1005 and others998 to remain entirely "value-free" is idealistic, this research hopes to focus on differentiating between different types of charismatic leadership in a way that is less of a morally ambiguous quagmire.909


In summary, this section has traced the evolution of the thinking about charisma and the study of charismatic leadership from the use of the concept in Greek mythology to a cross-section of the current debates in the social sciences today. From this point we should have a clear understanding of the rich and diverse history of the study of the concept as well as some of the challenges, as related to this research study, that leadership scholars are facing today. Before moving ahead to the heart of the main section of the literature review—the current literature on charismatic political leadership, specifically focusing on the literature that wrestles with different types—it may be helpful to briefly review a couple of the leading scholars' thoughts on where we are this moment and the type of research which is being suggested going forward.

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