Charismatic leadership is a relatively new and distinct paradigm. Since the 1970s, researchers have conducted studies on charismatic leadership in areas such as management, academia, the military, and government. Although researchers have used different approaches to study charismatic leadership, their findings have been fairly consistent.
Through empirical investigation, researchers have uncovered the key features of charismatic leadership. Charismatic leadership theory identifies the extraordinary characteristics that inspire devotion and motivation in followers and highlights the relationship between charismatic leaders and their followers. Studies describe charismatic leaders as highly influential and confident individuals who hold strong beliefs. They are change agents who communicate their vision to others, set high expectations, attend to the needs of their followers, and behave in unconventional ways. Researchers assert that charismatic leadership tends to manifest itself in crisis situations, when the leader is of high authority, when vague and complicated assignments are given, and when extrinsic rewards are not offered. These circumstances provide opportunities for charismatic leaders to implement change and to promote their vision.
Charismatic leaders are inherently motivated and committed to setting and meeting their goals. They are naturally diplomatic and work in partnership with their followers to identify organizational issues and undertake challenges and risks. They maintain a collective identity while providing a sense of direction that helps followers achieve both organizational and personal goals.
Research on Charismatic Leadership
Researchers have documented the positive effects of charismatic leadership. For example, they have found that followers of charismatic leaders not only support and trust their leader but also strive to accomplish their manager’s mission. They often learn from their leader and emulate his or her behavior. Studies suggest that followers embrace a charismatic leader and his or her mission because of the leader’s self-confidence, exceptional persona, extraordinary vision, ideology, and motivation to maximize his or her subordinates’ potential. Typically, followers experience higher satisfaction than do counterparts without charismatic leaders. However, findings from previous studies show that charismatic leaders can also create divisions within the groups they lead, display an authoritative management style, and focus on trivial matters.
Limitations of Charismatic Leadership Theory
Despite the amount of research that has been conducted on charismatic leadership theory, the exact definition of charismatic leadership remains uncertain. Some researchers assert that leaders are considered charismatic when followers perceive their leader as possessing extraordinary characteristics and when followers develop strong ties with their leader; however, such attributes are based on several presumptions: the quantity of components demonstrated in a leader’s behavior, the significance of the components, and the amount of influence of the components. Some of these components include the leader’s focus on the organizational environment, future goals, and likeability. Some researchers affirm that charismatic leadership exists when a leader affects a follower’s attitude and drive, even if the follower does not characterize the leader as exceptional or charismatic. Alternatively, others argue that a leader’s traits, followers, and situation collectively determine whether charismatic qualities are present.
Researchers suggest that charismatic leadership is not essential or necessary. Some argue that an organization’s vision is created through the collaborative efforts of leaders and subordinates, and some insist that major transformations within organizations occur as a result of transformational leaders. Still others argue that charismatic leadership is needed during turbulent or stressful times—for example, when a company experiences a reduction in its workforce or when an organizational merger occurs.
Charismatic leadership theory fails to provide a well-defined explanation of the significance of underlying influence processes. Some theorists propose that personal identification is the primary influence process, whereas others contend that collective identification and internalization are the dominant influence processes. They claim that followers become loyal to their leader and eagerly execute the leader’s tasks and objectives. These devoted followers work diligently to gain their charismatic leader’s approval and tend to emulate their leader’s behavior.
On the other hand, others contend that collective identification and internalization are the dominant influence processes. They claim that if internalization is the dominant influence process and followers are goal oriented, the attainment of goals will be an integral part of their self-confidence. Consequently, followers will work assiduously to fulfill their goals and exhibit more loyalty to their tasks than to the charismatic leader. Followers will likely refrain from executing the leader’s unrealistic goals and presumably reject objectives that infringe on their principles.
Unfortunately, there is not a shared understanding of the fundamental behaviors of charismatic leadership. Although the majority of studies on charismatic leadership address leader behaviors, there is presently no agreement among theorists regarding the essential behaviors of charismatic leadership, nor is there a clear understanding of the relationship between leader behavior and the rationale behind that behavior. Most of the behaviors seem to have been identified by their association with socialized leadership effectiveness rather than their link to qualities of charisma.
Additionally, there seems to be a greater focus on socially accepted behaviors than on manipulative behaviors. Some charismatic leaders engage in manipulative behaviors by inflating situations so as to depict a crisis, reprimanding others for their mishaps, and overstating their accomplishments. These manipulative behaviors often create dependent followers and a propensity for leaders to be viewed as experts.
- Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1998). Charismatic leadership in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Neider, L. L., & Schriesheim, C. A. (2002). Leadership. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.
- Raelin, J. A. (2003). The myth of charismatic leaders. Training and Development, 57(3), 46-54.
- Riggio, R. E. (2003). Introduction to industrial/organizational psychology (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.