Charismatic Leadership – What is it? Pros/Cons? Examples?


I have met many different types of people during my career as a leader in three different continents. People as well as leaders have different personalities of course. Every now and then, you meet someone that feels almost magnetic. A leader with true charisma can definitely impact people in ways others can’t..

Before going further in depth in this topic, let us give a quick overview.

What is 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. 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.

Keep on reading about charismatic leadership or check out our main article with more than a dozen leadership styles. You will find useful book and training tips at the end of this blog article in case you want to improve on your charismatic leadership.


So, what makes a good leader? You may say that they have a certain charisma that attracts others to them. A lot of people would agree with you. Being charismatic is good, but using a charismatic leadership style can be bad, or even dangerous, as we shall see.

What is a charismatic leader?
Charismatic leaders are experts in their fields and come with a clear vision in for instance business or politics that make them capable of engaging a larger set of audiences.

What is Charismatic Leadership?

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. Where does the line of charisma and leadership skills go?

A charismatic leader can develop a substantial following, perhaps almost to the level of a rock star?

Qualities of a Charismatic Leader

Charismatic leaders feel very different. They shine bright when standing in the crowd and have a certain affect on people surrounding them. Charismatic leaders are simply good at influencing other people. For a great book you can use to learn how to influence others in a good way you should try this book at Amazon: “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. I have read it multiple times myself. You will be amazed at some of the things you learn in that book.
The following qualities are examples of what sets charismatic leaders apart from others:

Emotional sensitivity and control

You may notice that a lot of charismatic leaders are capable of understanding others’ emotions well. After all, how will you “charm” your followers if you do not understand their situations and their needs? Charismatic leaders also tend to exhibit their own emotions in a good way. They can exercise better control over their emotions whenever needed. (Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (Amazon) is a must read by the way.)
Empathy is incredibly important for the charismatic leader. Read this article if you want to learn more about empathy for leaders.

Presence

Charismatic leaders are known for their healthy confidence and self-confidence. You will find them communicating while maintaining eye contact with the other person. This not only reflects their confidence but also makes others value their beliefs and opinions.

This doesn’t mean that they are not great listeners. A charismatic leader will hear your opinions and exhibit great listening skills – bridging both the previous bullet on emotions as well as the next on communication.

I read a summary of the Book “Executive Presence” on Blinkist and found it very helpful on understanding different aspects of your presence. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon: Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success.

Effective communicators

It goes without saying that charismatic leaders are great communicators. They are confident while speaking, and possess great listening skills. All these qualities make the charismatic leader an expert in connecting to high numbers of people. These leaders master the art of putting the right words together to convey their message. (Brian Tracy has an extensive course on this called The Power of Effective Communication that might interest you.)

Determination

Charismatic leaders are highly determined. They do not give up even when they have to face difficult struggles and challenges. They go ahead and meet the challenge head-on instead of running away from it, even when this means taking personal risks.

Vision with desire to make others believe

Passion, conviction and belief can build a lot of energy, charisma and rapport. Having the same vision, or even the stronger word cause, can be a great glue between a charismatic leader and his or her followers. In order to spread goals and passion, the charismatic leader needs to be able to form a great vision for people to follow. A great charismatic leader also has high belief in the followers and their ability to reach the goals of the group.
I do recommend a great book about vision and business by the way: From Good to Great. (Amazon.)

If you are interested in other ways to lead, go to our main article on leadership styles.

The peacock – presence and confidence in bird form. Perhaps over the top for a human charismatic leader.

Pros and Cons of Charismatic Leadership

As with anything, charismatic leadership has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Although leaders following a charismatic style often act as a catalyst for change, they might not be the right fit for organizations that are based on rigid structures and processes.

Pros

  • 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
  • Companies led by charismatic leaders often have high levels of clarity for the employees when it comes to roles and organizational objectives
  • Being part of something “bigger” than yourself can accelerate productivity and engagement among the members

Cons

  • The organization can be too closely associated or locked together with the persona of the leader. This makes succession difficult or even impossible.
  • Charismatic leaders can overestimate themselves and their own importance. They can even end up believing that they are above everything else. This could result in violation of the law, moral codes or simply not listening to anyone else.
  • If the vision or “cause” is a bad one, it can lead to the demise of the organization
  • A high level of obedience limits the transparency and inspiration – people might simply agree to whatever the charismatic leader says, this can be risky.

Check out other styles for inspiration here, leadership styles, or keep reading on how to improve your charisma.

How to Become A Charismatic Leader?

Charisma is a trait, you might argue, but the reality is that you can develop and learn to improve your charismatic qualities. Robert J House pointed to the situational factors as well as the behavior of the leader – these parts can definitely be developed. Communication skills, establishing presence, being determined and having vision – all typical qualities of a charismatic leader – can be developed and refined.

Let us go through a few areas where you can focus in order to grow your charismatic leadership capabilities. For deeper insight into leading with charisma, this link to Amazon might be something for you: “Charismatic Leadership: The Skills You Can Learn to Motivate High Performance in Others”.

Presence and Communication skills

Practice your communication skills in depth. This includes written communication, verbal communication as well as non-verbal communication such as body language. Improving in these areas is also likely to give you a boost when it comes to presence.

Read up on active listening and learn to use this method when interacting with others. You will be surprised at how much more information you gain and how much stronger the rapport with the other person will be. Couple this with learning more about body language, emotional queues etc. and you are on a good path to develop your emotional awareness and intelligence.

Since you need to communicate and establish a connection with people, you need to develop your public speaking skills. For some of us, this starts with dealing with stage fright or other types of communication apprehension, but the journey is not over there. Continue to train, learn and grow your experience in public speaking until you can show presence, confidence and connect with your audience. This will help you tremendously in influencing and convincing people to follow you.
Consider getting Brian Tracy’s free e-book “The 6 Figure Speaker” or check out his course The Power of Effective Communication if you want to become a better speaker. It contains advice on how to work your audience and enable that perfect presentation that we are all striving for.

Vision

Work on how to set, describe and communicate a vision properly. Some guidance can be found in this article on Visionary Leadership. You need to truly now and understand your followers in order to know how and what to communicate concerning your vision. Hence, getting the above step of communication and active listening into place will help you to set the vision as well as paint the picture for the followers.

Communication should also be done in many ways and through many channels to strengthen the message. Use the classic downward communication together with personal communication, written communication and digital types of communication. Repetition is key.

Confidence

Ensure that you know yourself completely. What are your strengths and your development areas? Treasure and use your strengths and always work on improving your development areas. This will build to higher confidence and trust in yourself. Whatever you do, remember to also be humble. As I see it, being humble is a major portion of being charismatic as well as having confidence. If you are truly humble, you understand that you are not the master of everything, and things will stop being all about you. The risk of over confidence and coming across as a self-centered ego maniac, hardly charismatic, is reduced if you ensure you stay humble.

You can find some additional tips on emotional intelligence, empathy and listening skills in this text about Servant Leadership.

The Thin Line Between Positive and Negative Charisma

So far we have focused on all-things-good, but it is important to mention that things could take an ugly turn when it comes to charismatic leaders. Charisma could be a slippery slope with a very dark side in some occasions.

Essentially, the positive traits of a charismatic leader could be used in a very negative way just as they can be used in a good way. With strong charismatic leaders, the followers tend to want to emulate and raise the leader to an abnormal level. The leader can almost become prophet like. The leader can then lose all proportion and believe that he or she is above anything else, including other people, laws and basic ethics. This in turn can lead to some bad deeds, worst case involving major parts of the followers as well.

As the charismatic leader starts to get more and more big headed, he or she will stop to accept being questioned. After showing this behavior, followers that kept the leader anchored will stop pushing back and challenging the reason in things. Transparency and feedback will reduce, and the followers will transform into an agreeable heard. Fewer and fewer will say no and more and more will say yes, louder and louder – all incentivized by the leader’s charisma and the situational aspects of the following.

When the movement or organization has become a strict “one man show”, initiative will start to die – no one can come up with a good idea or suggest a change except for the great leader him or herself. As the circus goes on, the followers will soon find that the movement that started with them and a leader has slowly turned into something else – something completely fixated on the leader. This means the followers will stop believing and stop contributing or even abandoning the group.

At several points in this chain of events, a leader with dark behaviors or illicit motives can put some very bad things into motion. Charles Manson is an example of that, and you can read more about him further down in the charismatic leadership examples section.

Charismatic leadership has a dark side to it..

My experience of charismatic leadership

I don’t believe I have ever come across a leader who has truly been a representative of the charismatic leadership style. The industries I have been involved in has rarely contained any big “cause”, crisis or anything like that. I think that true charismatic leaders might want to seek situations and organizations where more revolutionary change is possible, but that´s just my theory.

Even if I haven’t met a pure charismatic leader fully using the charismatic leadership style, I have met leaders that have been more or less charismatic, that’s for sure. Looking back at some of these people and my interaction with them, I strongly believe that charisma is of great importance to a leader. A total lack charisma often effects communication negatively, just as trust, inspiration would take hits. Being charismatic often makes people feel comfortable, safe and important – all good things that a leader would wish for his or her followers.

If you are charismatic, there is simply a higher chance that people will remember you and what you had to say – again, important things for a leader.

So, even if you think that the charismatic leadership style isn’t for you – be sure to not underestimate the importance of charisma and being charismatic – this will enable you to become a better leader regardless of which leadership styles you deploy and implement.

Charismatic Leadership Theory: Two schools of thought, Weber and House

Texts on charismatic leadership mostly refer to two different schools of thoughts, namely the texts of Max Weber and Robert House respectively.

Max Weber’s definition of charismatic leadership

Max Weber created a definition of three leadership styles: charismatic, traditional and bureaucratic leadership with the concept of every leader using all three styles, but to a different proportion. The charismatic style was depending on the persona and personality of the leader to a very high extent. This person would be perceived as extraordinarily gifted by the followers. Furthermore, the authority and legitimacy of the charismatic leader depended on the followers, or the “believers”. If the leader does not continue to prove worthy and of use, the legitimacy of the leader can go away, i.e. the followers are not following anymore. According to this definition, it is extremely difficult to arrange for proper succession planning for a charismatic leader.

Robert J House’s definition of charismatic leadership

Robert J House defines charismatic leadership a bit differently in his “A 1976 Theory of Charismatic Leadership”. This paper reviewed both traditional literature as well as psychology literature on the topic of charisma. House defines Charismatic Leadership through defining the term “charismatic leader” as a person who has one or more of the below effects “on followers to an unusually high degree”:

  • Trust in either the similarity between the beliefs of the follower and the leader and/or the correctness of the beliefs of the leader
  • Acceptance of the leader without questioning
  • Affection and/or willingness to obey the leader
  • Identifying with as well as emulating the leader
  • Emotional involvement in the activities or mission set out by the leader
  • Increased goals and the feeling of being able to accomplish those goals

This is a shortened list, and some of these aspects are not extreme on their own, so I assume the power is really in the phrasing of the above having effects “to an unusually high degree”. Instead of a belief in a “gift” as outlined by Weber, House breaks this down to the personal characteristics and behavior of the leader combined with the characteristics of the followers and situational factors. The personal characteristics of the leader would be extreme self-confidence, dominance, and a conviction in the moral righteousness of the leader’s beliefs. So, where Weber focuses a lot on the personality and persona of the charismatic leader, House adds situational aspects and the characteristics of the followers to the mix, making charismatic leadership a bit more possible to understand and to undertake as a style. Just like Weber, House places emphasis on conviction and beliefs.

Examples of Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leader exist in business settings, religious institutions, political movements and many other parts of society.

Let’s have a look at some leaders who are known for their charisma and that fit well to the charismatic leadership style explained above.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King was born in 1929 and soon started following in the footsteps of his father who was a Baptist minister. Dr King embarked on a civil rights career and led the bus boycott the night that Rosa Parks was arrested.

His powerful speeches and peaceful protests coupled with his cause that made him very popular. Martin Luther King’s speeches were in fact so powerful that they ignited movement for equal rights. One famous speech that he delivered on August 28, 1963, attracted more than 200,000 people.

Dr. King played a crucial role in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in the United States a year later from when he delivered his speech.

Martin Luther King Jr. a good example of a charismatic leader.

Sir Winston Churchill

The prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II, Sir Winston Churchill was born in 1874. He worked as a war correspondent in World War I which polished his communication skills. History remembers him for his powerful orating skills that would inspire the listener. He is often quoted and is well known for several sentences that gathered millions of people. Winston Churchill is also known to be an example of a bureaucratic leader. I guess well known and famous people to did great deeds can encompass several different styles or aspects, all depending on how you look at them.

Jack Welch

Next on the list of charismatic leaders is Jack Welch who was born in 1935. Jack Welch joined General Electric as a chemical engineer in 1960 and became the youngest CEO in GE’s history in 1981. Born in Peabody, Massachusetts, Jack used to play varied sports during his childhood. He later applied the lessons learned during sports to his life.

Jack Welch is known for setting big goals and being a good and confident communicator. Mr. Welsh was sometimes referred to as the “manager of the century”, that´s how big his impact was. He was well known for a high focus on developing relationships with employees as well as customers.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson led a cult in California, USA, during the late 60’s. He led his followers, known as “The Family” down a criminal path with several people being killed as a result. Manson hoped that this would set off a racial war since fake clues pointing at the Black Panthers had been left at the crime scene. Charles Manson was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes in 1971.
Allegedly, Charles Manson read the book “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. (The link is to the book on Amazon.) It is a great book and contains a lot of information on how to influence others. Just use it in a good way, and not as Manson did.

Go to our main article on styles to read about another dozen leadership styles.

Charismatic Leadership Books

Here is a list of books regarding charisma and charismatic leadership style that might be of interest to you in case you desire further reading. All of the links go to Amazon so you can read descriptions and reviews of the books easily.

Books on Charismatic Leadership

Learn how to influence others in a good way and learn some tricks used by charlatans and manipulators. This is a great and timeless book by Dale Carnegie: “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.

Read more on executive presence in order to improve your presence which in turns build your charisma. Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success.

For deeper insight into leading with charisma in general, here is a book about learning the skills of motivation: “Charismatic Leadership: The Skills You Can Learn to Motivate High Performance in Others”.

Last but not least. Here’s a book on how charismatic leaders effect people and how they can impact organizations. It also includes pointers on improving yourself and your charisma. The Charismatic Leader, Behind the Mystique of Exceptional Leadership, by Jay A. Conger.

Since Emotional Intelligence is so important in Charismatic Leadership, I also want to recommend this great book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (Amazon).

For a good book on Vision and how to sustain great results over many years, I suggest you read From Good to Great. (Amazon.) It changed the way I think on the future as a leader in the business world.

Consider getting Brian Tracy’s free e-book “The 6 Figure Speaker” if you want to become a better speaker. It also contains information on influence and persuasion.

If you want even more good tips on which books to read, check out our article here: The Best Books for Leaders and Managers.

Want to learn more? Read our main article on leadership styles which has information on loads of other styles and frameworks.

Charismatic Leadership Courses and Training

Here are some of the relevant courses and training options that I’ve found online. I haven’t tried all of these myself, but the contents and the reviews look good, otherwise they wouldn’t qualify for this list. (Some of these links are affiliate links, which means I might qualify for a commissions.)

The Power of Effective Communication is a course by Brian Tracy. It’s a general guide on public speaking and communication and includes topics such as stage fright, opening/closing a speech, how to grab the attention of an audience, subject transition, as well as listening skills.

Brian Tracy also offers a course that helps you to build your confidence which in turn can improve your charisma. The Science of Self-Confidence involves interesting topics such as influencing, listening, persuasion, how to become more respected and admired. All these skills are very useful asa part of charismatic leadership or in any leadership for that matter.

References

https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201210/what-is-charisma-and-charismatic-leadership
https://hbr.org/2016/11/when-charismatic-leadership-goes-too-far
https://online.stu.edu/articles/education/what-is-charismatic-leadership.aspx
https://hbr.org/2008/02/becoming-a-charismatic-leader
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42051402
Robert J House, “A 1976 Theory of Charismatic Leadership”: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED133827.pdf

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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