Charismatic Leadership

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Charismatic leadership is another type of leadership. Followers idolize and revere charismatic leaders. And they believe that their leader will help bring about a better future.

charismatic leadership feature image

The Origins of Charismatic Leadership

Ancient Greece

The English word charisma comes from the ancient Greek word kharisma. It means divine gift. You will find the word in Greek mythology. And you will find notions akin to the idea of charismatic leadership in the writings of Aristotle.

Charisma & Religion

Within Christianity, St Paul talks about people receiving charismata or gifts of the Spirit – one of which is prophecy.

The Hebrew Bible, which is broadly the same as the Christian Old Testament, is full of stories about nabi (i.e. prophets). Jews believe that God inspired these prophets to speak his mind. Some of the more notable prophets include Abraham, David and Moses.

Within Islam, Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last of the prophets.

Max Weber

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German philosopher and one of the founders of modern sociology.

Weber believed that charismatic individuals had been given exceptional gifts that ordinary people don’t have access too. As a result of these gifts, people see them as leaders and look to them to lead – especially in times of distress.

Weber’s description of charismatic leadership is vague. Yet, it hints at 3 key points:

  • Your personal characteristics (gifts) affect your leadership
  • Context affects your leadership
  • Other people’s beliefs about you affect your ability to lead

Characteristics Connected to Charismatic Leadership

In 1977 Robert House described several personal characteristics of charismatic leaders1. Since then, research2 has confirmed and added to his list.

Personal characteristics associated with charismatic leadership include:

  • Extraversion
  • Emotional Stability
  • Openness
  • Agreeableness
  • A Need to Influence
  • Moral Conviction
  • Proactive Personality


Extraverts are socially assertive, confident and enthusiastic. These are all traits associated with leadership in general, and with charismatic leadership.

Emotional Stability

The emotions and moods of leaders are contagious. Emotionally stable leaders are not quick to anger. Nor do they worry unnecessarily. And, they don’t get stressed easily.

Rather, charismatic leaders tend to be optimistic, positive people.


Leaders with a high level of openness tend to be curious and unconventional. They also tend to be risk takers who are willing to challenge the status quo and embrace change.

Again, these are all traits associated with charismatic leadership.


Agreeable leaders tend to put others before themselves. Also, they are likely to be both trusting and trustworthy. Furthermore, agreeable leaders tend to nurture and develop their staff.

Research shows that agreeableness is a strong personal characteristic linked to charismatic leadership.

The Need for Power

The need for power does not mean that charismatic leaders want to dominate their followers into submission. Rather, it simply refers to a person’s inner desire to have an impact on others and the collective results they achieve.

Such desire is a core aspect of leadership in general and the same holds for charismatic leadership.

Moral Conviction

According to House, charismatic leaders have strong beliefs. They not only regard these beliefs as being true. They also see them as being righteous.

Proactive Personality

Proactive people take the initiative to bring about the results that they desire. And, proactivity is associated with charismatic leadership.

Context & Charismatic Leadership

Max Weber believed that charismatic leaders were more likely to appear in times of distress. There is limited research on the matter. But the research3 that does exist supports this belief. This explains the rise of leaders such as Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.

But charismatic leaders don’t only appear in times of distress. They also appear to seize opportunities around them. For example, Martin Luther King rose to prominence within a time when traditional morality parts of society were challenging traditional morality. Moreover, research4 supports the potential role that times of opportunity can play in the rise of charismatic leaders.

Times of distress and times of opportunity may seem categorically different. Yet they both involve replacing the status quo with some picture of a better future.

Other People’s Beliefs & Your Charismatic Leadership

Max Weber hinted at the idea that other people’s beliefs about you, in part determine your charisma. Put another way, if other people believe that you are charismatic, then you will have a charismatic effect on them. If they don’t see you this way, then you won’t have the same effect.

Political scientist, Ann Wilner studied many political leaders. These leaders ranged from charismatic despots such Ayatollah Khomeini to Ghandi. She found no universal set of characteristics shared by all charismatic leaders. Rather, she believed that people’s perceptions are crucial.

It is not what the leader is but what people see the leader as that count in generating the charismatic relationship.
Ann Wilner

But it was Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo who developed the first fully formed attributional theory of charismatic leadership.  They also outlined behaviors that often lead followers to viewing you as a charismatic leader.

Conger & Kanungo: Behaviors of Charismatic Leaders

Conger and Kanungo grouped charismatic behaviors into 3 stages:

  1. Evaluation
  2. Envisioning
  3. Enacting

Behaviors in Stage 1: Evaluation

Evaluation involves 3 specific behaviors. First, you must look at the current situation to find threats and opportunities. Second, you need to consider the resources you can devote to avoiding threats or exploiting opportunities. Finally, you need to consider the values, beliefs and needs of your followers.

Without a realistic evaluation, your later efforts are likely to fail. And, followers do not see failing leaders as being charismatic.

Behaviors in Stage 2: Envisioning

Leaders are more likely to regarded as charismatic when they have a compelling vision of a better future. This vision needs to be something extraordinary and quite different to the status quo. Yet, it also needs to be possible considering the evaluation you conducted in stage one.

Crafting a compelling, yet feasible vision is crucial. Yet, on its own, it is not enough. Charismatic leaders are capable communicators. And, they use this ability to communicate their:

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo
  • Vision of a better future
  • Plan for achieving that vision

They also communicate their personal motivation and conviction towards the cause.

Behaviors in Stage 3: Enacting

Charismatic leaders choose unconventional ways to bring their vision to fruition. And, they show a selfless and total commitment to the cause.

This combination of selfless, unconventional action helps build the high level of trust and faith you need.

Robert House: Behaviors Linked to Charismatic Leadership

Robert House also put forward a similar list of behaviors linked to charismatic leadership. Although his list includes some differences.


Charismatic leaders communicate a compelling vision. To do so, they must have crafted a compelling vision in the first place. But House does not include evaluation behaviors in his list.


Charismatic leaders use expressive and persuasive forms of communication. They are masters at using language. And they do so in ways that help their followers see meaning and purpose in their work.

Risk Taking & Self-Sacrifice

Charismatic leaders take risks and make personal sacrifices in service of their cause. This makes their followers want to emulate them.

High Expectations

Charismatic leaders hold high expectations of their followers. At the same time, they express confidence in their followers’ ability to meet those expectations.

Modelling the Behavior They Expect of Others

Charismatic leaders serve as role models for their followers. More specifically, they model behaviors that will help make their vision a reality.

Shaping People’s Perceptions

Charismatic leaders actively shape the way that their followers see them. In addition to talking the talk and walking the walk, they also use a range of impression management techniques.

Building Identification

The followers of charismatic leaders naturally identify with their leaders. Yet, House believed they also help their followers to identify with their group and the organization.


According to House, charismatic leaders also empower their followers. This is similar to transformational leadership and the Kotter change model.