Charismatic Leadership vs Transformational Leadership


There are some similarities between charismatic leadership and transformational leadership style for sure. There are also huge differences.. Let us set the stage with short introductions of the charismatic leadership and transformation leadership styles that are being compared in this article.

I will use descriptions and theories for these styles as well as my experience from leadership over the last fifteen years and try to give you a good picture on charismatic leadership vs transformational leadership.

If you already know the rough outline of Transformational Leadership and Charismatic Leadership, go directly to the comparison segment.

Intro: Transformational Leadership Style

Let’s start with a short summary of what the Transformational Leadership Style is about:

“A transformational leader inspires people and lead by example. He or she believes the team members can transform and evolve to become better as individuals and reach higher levels of performance and productivity.”

The leader and the team work together to find the need for change and create a vision for the future which they then start working towards together. Empowering and giving authority to individuals in the organization is one segment of transformational leadership and this often leads to positive attitudes and higher productivity.”

“The wanted outcome of transformational leadership is to reach really high engagement and use that to reach increased levels of motivation and productivity. The leadership style also seeks to improve and increase the ethical aspects of team behavior. The ultimate goal of the transformational leader is to inspire and develop the team members to achieve fantastic levels of success and achievement.”

“Nelson Mandela is often mentioned as a transformational leader who painted a strong vision and inspired a lot of people to believe that change was possible. Mandela’s strong focus on forgiveness has an ethical aspect which is also in line with the transformational leadership style. Another example is Mahatma Gandhi who managed to instill great change while retaining strong ethics. Sir Richard Branson and Marissa Mayer are also examples of transformational leaders.”

The quotes on transformational leadership style above is from our article on the 7 leadership styles.”

As you can probably tell, there are some strong similarities between transformational leadership and visionary leadership as well, but that might be a topic for a future article.

We need to give a similar short summary of the charismatic leadership style as well in order to set the table for a comparison.

Intro: Charismatic Leadership Style

Here is a short synopsis on the charismatic leadership style.

“Charismatic leadership style is when a leader with charismatic qualities inspires others towards a greater purpose. It can be very inspirational and motivational for the followers which can accelerate unity, productivity and engagement in the organization.”

“Charismatic leadership focuses on influencing and inspiring others. Charismatic leadership is tightly connected with the persona and charisma of the leader, it is more personality bound than any of the other leadership styles. The charismatic leader often connects to his or her personal view on morals and passion. The charismatic leader also plays on the emotions of his or her followers, who in turn recognize and appreciate the moral and passion of their leader.”

“On the downside, charismatic leadership can also end up being a one man show with a leader disconnected from the realities of the organization – even worse if the greater purpose or “cause” is a flawed one. A charismatic leader can drum up high levels of obedience which can be risky for the future of the organization. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Jack Welsh and Charles Manson are examples of charismatic leaders.” The above quotes are from our article on the Charismatic Leadership Style, please read it if you desire more in depth information on this style.

Charismatic Leadership vs Transformational Leadership

Let us start out with an overview of some of the major differences before we drill further into the details of charismatic leadership vs transformational leadership.

The difference between charismatic leadership and transformational leadership is:

  • Charismatic leadership gravitates around the leader and the persona of the leader. Transformational centers around a common vision and focus on improving and evolving all team members to reach another level.
  • Transformational leadership builds on transparency and empowerment, whereas Charismatic Leadership is built on listening to what the charismatic leader tells you.
  • Transformation leadership has development of the individuals as a prioritized area, in charismatic leadership, the followers are more of tools to reach the target.

Now let’s drill down a bit into these selected items on charismatic leadership vs transformational leadership.

Charismatic leadership vs Transformational leadership: Vision

In transformational leadership the vision is put together by the group whereas the charismatic leader is like to have a vision that then becomes the vision of the followers. Hence, the transformational leadership has a much more democratic approach to setting the vision.
Whereas the vision or cause is the end result in charismatic leadership, the transformational leadership style also puts high priority on improving and developing the people in the organization. The people led by with the charismatic leadership style are much more of followers than participators and developing them would be a sidetrack since the leader and the vision of the leader is the most important focus item.

Charismatic leadership vs Transformational leadership: Empowerment and transparency

The charismatic leadership style builds to a certain extent on the obedience of the followers. Obedience means you do what you are told, and much less efforts are therefor put on transparency and explanations.
In transformational leadership it is quite the opposite. In this style, the team members are purposely empowered in order to contribute with initiative and engagement. This is seen as a way of developing people as well as reaching higher productivity.
You can pretty much forget about empowerment in the context of the charismatic leadership style. Why would you need to be empowered? There is already the one great leader who brought you the big vision, and by the way, the leader is to charismatic and popular anyway so why worry about that. (Written with a bit of a sarcastic tone.)

Charismatic leadership vs Transformational leadership: Developing the team members

In transformational leadership, one of the key purposes is to develop the team members so they can learn and evolve. The thought is that people can transform into achieving better and more in the future. This is a key element in finally reaching the vision of the organization and making it stronger for the future.
In charismatic leadership, developing people is not a focus area. The focus area is the leader and fulfilling the vision of that leader. The personal characteristics and persona of the leader is seen as far more essential than those of the followers. There is simply not much room for anything else but the persona and the vision in an organization where the charismatic leadership style is used fully.

Some words on charisma vs charismatic leadership

To summarize, both leadership styles have a high focus on vision, but how it is shaped and how it is deployed is different. Treatment of team members and followers of the leader is also very different.

Let’s be careful on the use of the word charisma though. A leader can be charismatic without deploying what is known as the charismatic leadership style. It is often a good thing to be charismatic and a leader with strong charisma is in my mind more likely to succeed with most of the leadership styles.

The transformational leadership style can be deployed by a charismatic leader as well as a leader with absolutely no charisma whatsoever. As said, being charismatic might speed things up and make it easier to receive buy in, but, the style can be used with literally zero charisma.
On the contrary, you cannot use the charismatic leadership style if you are not charismatic. The charisma and persona of the leader is completely engrained into this leadership style. It simply wouldn’t be the charismatic leadership style if a person without charisma tried to use it.

Which style to choose then?

For me it is obvious. I would choose the transformational leadership style over the charismatic leadership style any day and that is not because I lack in the charisma department. Look at it this way:

  • You are charismatic: both styles can be used
  • Do you already have a passionate vision or cause? No? Then the Charismatic Leadership Style might be difficult – use transformational leadership instead and let people help you create a vision
  • Do you care about your people? Most leaders do. If you do not care about your people, I would even dare to say that you are a manager and not a leader? Are the people secondary to fulfilling your vision? If you answer “Yes” to both, then transformational leadership might be the way to go
  • Are you autocratic and unwilling to explain and provide transparency? Then go full charismatic leadership style – just make sure you have a great vision and sharpen that charisma like never before

Choosing between these two leadership styles are of course much more difficult than answering the questions above. It is just and easy way for me to prove my point on charismatic leadership vs transformational leadership, that’s all.

For me it is easy. My passion as a leader is in the people. I do not have a cause in my life that is stronger than my passion for people, hence, transformational leadership style is the one for me if I had to pick one of the two.

Do you have comments or ideas on this article? Would you like to suggest another aspect on charismatic leadership vs transformational leadership? Then please do comment below, I would really appreciate to hear your perspective on this.

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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