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Charismatic Leadership

Do strong, charismatic leaders inspire followers to achieve great things, or do their egos get in the way? When describing the contemporary ideal of a charismatic leader, some scholars have used the terms charismatic and transformational interchangeably. In fact, charismatic leadership is a subset of transformational leadership. Bernard Bass, an acclaimed researcher who integrated leadership theory and application from social, political, and behavioral sciences, explained that one way a transformational leader achieves results is through charisma.[1] Either way, transformational or charismatic leaders inspire their followers and come to be trusted almost unconditionally by them. Followers develop great affection for their charismatic leaders and can identify with them.[2]


Charismatic Leader Characteristics

Bass went to great lengths to differentiate between transformational, within which charismatic is a subgroup, and transactional leadership, in his 1990 article. The difference should be noted. Transactional leaders are more interested in the immediate gratification associated with instantaneous transactions. They reward performance and take corrective action immediately.[3] While these transactions could benefit the follower and leader both, they are not necessarily part of a broader follower-development process.


To the contrary, Bass explained that transformational leaders treat their followers individually. They coach and advise them, instilling in them a sense of mission in their professional lives. Transformational leaders prepare their followers for the firm's long-term success and the development of the follower as a professional. Bass further described charismatic leaders as energetic, self-confident, and determined, with strong verbal skills and high intellect.[4]


Charismatic leaders are visionaries, self-sacrificing for their followers, who provide decisive leadership.[5] These traits are appreciated globally. The GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) Project, led by scholars such as Ali Dastmalchian, Mansour Javidan, Peter Dorfman, and founding member Robert House, study culture, leadership, and organizational practices and how they interact.[6] The GLOBE Project and other scholars have studied leadership cross-culturally to find that certain leadership traits are recognized by followers universally. Many of those same researchers found that charismatic leaders were appreciated in other cultures when they constantly strove for improving performance from their followers.[7]


Take the Middle East, for example. The GLOBE team and other researchers studied charismatic leaders in the Gulf States and described Middle Eastern leaders as positive, motivational, and enthusiastic.[8] In addition, researchers found that elements of the Islamic faith, such as justice and providing a calming effect, reinforce charismatic leadership.[9]



Charisma Inspires Followers

Of the charismatic actions discussed above, inspiration deserves further exploration. Charismatic leaders who inspire others enable them to perform at higher levels. Cross-cultural leadership scholars discovered that this ability to inspire comes from a leader’s deeply-held core beliefs.[10] [11] In addition to the benefits of higher-level performance, followers benefit when charismatic leaders support their education, training, and professional development. Transformational leaders have a substantial impact on their firm’s exploitation of existing institutional knowledge. Such leaders pass knowledge on to receptive followers with greater ease than leaders who simply focus on immediate gratification.[12]


Simon Sinek, author, motivational speaker, and unshakeable optimist, writes and speaks about inspiring people to find fulfillment in their work.[13] In his books, he proclaimed that charismatic leaders inspire people to come to work every day in the hopes of serving causes more significant than themselves.[14] When leaders and followers share similar values and beliefs, he said, this provides the inspiration for achieving the leader’s visions. Sinek explained that when people take pride in their work and have a genuine concern for their colleagues, they collaborate better and are better problem-solving team members.[15]



Over-Reliance on Charisma

With this charismatic personality also comes strong egotism, according to Bass. He explained that leaders could be trained to be charismatic in their verbal and nonverbal communication with followers.[16] The organization, however, must be careful not to develop a charismatic leader to the extreme. If a leader’s personality falls too far outside of the accepted collective norm, that leader’s charisma could backfire.[17] Much has been studied about the effects that leaders have on followers, but too little is known of the impact such egotistical leaders have on groups and organizations.[18]


Take, for instance, a study conducted on child poverty in United Kingdom schools published in 2013. The researchers looked at the detrimental impact on school education and bleak future prospects of school children exacerbated by the economic crisis of that time. They found that part of the UK's problem with addressing poverty in schools was more about leadership than benefactors. When organizations rely too heavily on charismatic people to lead, inspire, and motivate a team, the team, in turn, develops poor prioritization practices. They recommended more formalized distributed leadership systems to supplement the charismatic personalities at the top to mitigate this dependence.[19]


Charisma is more than just a descriptor of a leadership trait, it is the embodiment of action to transform an organization and its followers. This leadership style is recognized and appreciated across many cultures worldwide. Followers are inspired by charismatic leader to achieve great things. Organizations, however, must be careful not to encourage charisma at the expense of substance.


Observations

  • charismatic leaders inspire others to greatness; they are energetic, confident, and determined

  • strong, charismatic personalities may also be egotistic

[1] Bass (1990) [2] Dickson, Den Hartog, & Mitchelson (2003) [3] Bass (1990) [4] Bass (1990) [5] House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta (2004) [6] GLOBE Project (2020) [7] Dorfman, Javidan, Hanges, & Dastmalchian (2012) [8] Kabasakal & Bodur (2002) [9] Abdalla & al-Hamoud (2001) [10] House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta (2004) [11] Javidan, Dorfman, de Luque, & House (2006) [12] Flatten Adams, & Brettel (2015) [13] Sinek (2020) [14] Sinek (2014) [15] Sinek (2014) [16] Bass (1990) [17] Dickson, Den Hartog, & Mitchelson (2003) [18] Yukl (1999) [19] McKinney, Hall, Lowden, McClung, & Cameron (2013)

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