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Charismatic Leadership vs. Visionary Leadership

Updated September 25, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Charismatic and visionary leadership have substantial similarities but remain very different due to the dependency on the leader’s persona. In this article, I compare visionary and charismatic leadership to highlight similarities and differences. As a CEO, I have seen examples of both, and although they are both great leadership styles in limited doses, they tend to become problematic if taken too far.

Before we compare charismatic leadership vs. visionary leadership, let me provide you with short introductions of both styles, taken from our leadership styles articles.

Introduction to Visionary Leadership

Daniel Goleman first coined visionary leadership in 2002 as part of the Goleman Leadership Styles framework. It’s a concept that relates to Goleman’s perspective on conditional leadership, where certain leadership styles work best under certain conditions.  Goleman defines visionary leadership as “the ability to take charge and inspire with a compelling vision” and postulates that this type of leadership is best used “when changes require a new vision or when a clear direction is needed.” (References can be found in the main article.)

Visionary Leadership is when a leader inspires others to pursue a long-term vision. Visionary Leadership builds on participation, communication, and goal setting. A visionary leader can lose short-term focus since all efforts are focused on the vision. Nelson Mandela is an example of a visionary leader.

The advantages of visionary leadership are:

  • There is a clear overall goal that inspires unity
  • Temporary setbacks won’t stop the pursuit of the overall vision
  • Visionary leaders are proactive and can often foresee challenges
  • Visionary leaders value innovation and creativity and help your team to thrive in these areas
  • Balanced risk-taking is allowed to push the organization toward the overall goal
  • Worker’s achievements are rewarded and valued

The disadvantages of visionary leadership are:

  • The long-term focus can lead to tunnel vision, resulting in short-term problems being ignored
  • The vision may be lost if it becomes too intertwined with the personality of the leader and proper succession planning is not carried out effectively
  • The vision can become a fixation, leading to conflicting ideas being ignored, and the vision is never allowed to be challenged
  • A visionary leader can easily get a team excited about a project but often loses this momentum because there’s no follow-through.

All this information is excerpted from our main article on visionary leadership, which I suggest you read for a deeper understanding of this great and very useful leadership style.

Introduction to Charismatic Leadership

Max Weber defined three types of leadership authority: charismatic, traditional, and bureaucratic leadership, as ways to exert power over others. The charismatic style depended on the persona and personality of the leader to a great extent. According to Weber’s theory, this person would be perceived as extraordinarily gifted by the followers.

Charismatic leadership focuses on influencing and inspiring others. Charismatic leadership is tightly connected with the persona and charisma of the leader, and it is more personality bound than any of the other leadership styles. The charismatic leader often connects to their personal view on morals and passion. The charismatic leader also plays on the emotions of their followers, who recognize and appreciate their leader’s morals and passion. Where does the line between charisma and leadership skills go?

Charismatic leadership is when a leader uses charismatic qualities to inspire others. Charismatic leadership can be very inspirational and motivational, leading to unity and engagement. Charismatic leadership risks becoming an autocratic one-man show. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is an example of a charismatic leader.

The advantages of charismatic leadership are:

  • Charismatic leadership inspires people to work together and unitedly for a common cause
  • Organizations led by a charismatic leader often show high levels of commitment and purpose
  • There is high clarity when it comes to roles and organizational objectives
  • Being part of something “bigger” than yourself can accelerate productivity and engagement among the members

The disadvantages of charismatic leadership are:

  • Charismatic leadership can become locked together with the leader’s persona. This makes succession planning difficult or even impossible.
  • Charismatic leaders can overestimate their own importance, believing they are above everything else. This could result in a violation of the law, and moral codes, and shutting out other opinions, ultimately leading to autocratic leadership.
  • If the vision or “cause” is a bad one, it can lead to the demise of the organization
  • A high level of obedience limits transparency, and inspiration can be risky – people might simply agree to whatever the charismatic leader says.

All the above information is taken from our main article on charismatic leadership, which I suggest you read for a more profound understanding of this rather risky leadership style.

Similarities between visionary leadership and charismatic leadership

Charismatic and visionary leadership have a lot in common regarding leading with purpose, vision, or a common cause. This in itself creates a lot of additional similarities between these styles.

The similarities between charismatic and visionary leadership are:

  • Strong focus on vision and an overall goal
  • Leading with purpose inspires unity and collaboration
  • The sense of being part of something bigger than yourself can lead to increased productivity
  • Followers can feel loyalty to the vision, leading to lower employee turnover
  • Extreme focus on the vision can lead to avoidance of short-term issues
  • Tunnel vision can lead to avoidance of alternate futures: the vision cannot be questioned
  • Deep ties between the leader and the vision can lead to difficulties in succession planning

Some of the negative similarities are likely to be stronger in charismatic leadership since the persona of the leader, by definition, plays a much more central and key role than in visionary leadership.

Differences between visionary leadership and charismatic leadership

Despite so many commonalities, the differences between charismatic and visionary leadership are sharp and substantial.

The differences between visionary and charismatic leadership are:

  • Charismatic leadership is by definition connected to the leader as a persona
  • Visionary leadership is defined as a situational style intended to be used in combination with five other styles, forming a leadership toolbox
  • Visionary leadership builds on a strong vision, with employees connecting to the vision, while charismatic leadership builds more on people following the leader as a person, although that person has a vision. Charismatic leadership is persona first, vision secondary, and visionary leadership is the opposite
  • Visionary leadership builds on the knowledge, competency, and skills of the leader, which is why it is also referred to as authoritative leadership, whereas charismatic leadership builds on the personal charisma, emotional intelligence, and persuasion of the leader
  • Charismatic leadership is more likely to lead to cult-like situations

Charismatic leadership vs. visionary leadership – discussion and summary

The biggest difference between visionary and charismatic leadership is, by far, the dependency on the leader’s personality. Even if you find an equally charismatic person, chances are that that person desires another future and hence brings another vision to the table, radically changing the entire situation. How do you exchange a leader that builds the entire approach on personal charisma and desire to succeed?

Visionary leadership is intended to be used together with Goleman’s other leadership styles to provide long-term goals and an overall purpose. While pursuing this vision, other styles will be used to tackle short-term challenges, build creativity and engagement, build strong team relationships, and develop people for the future. Charismatic leadership is one-sided and builds on the charisma of the leader. Period.

A visionary leader who does not use other styles and becomes completely intertwined with the vision is likely to be a charismatic leader. Complete and extreme vision focus will be difficult to sell to the followers without the appropriate charisma. It is as simple as that.

Do not get me wrong, charisma is a good thing, and leaders should use their charisma to lead others. However, charisma is a way of influencing others and should not be seen as the one and sole method of leading. Leaders should instead use multiple leadership styles and convey purpose, influence others, build loyalty, support followers, etc., using charisma, among many other leadership traits, such as ethics, communication, leading by example, etc.

Suggested reading

For further information about this, please refer to the following articles:

Here are some more comparison articles:

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