The Charismatic Leader: A Case for Discernment

The Charismatic Leader: A Case for Discernment

The charismatic leader is a highly influential person. They have a magnetic personality which sets him apart from other human beings, giving him exceptional personal power. Their followers frequently see him as superhuman and sometimes even supernatural. The charismatic leader is perceived to have an exemplary character. Sometimes this is true, enabling him to be an invaluable agent of change and a force of good in the world.

The charismatic leader has the ability to reduce complex ideas into simple messages. They are frequently seen as an organizational hero having the capacity to orchestrate desired change and turn things around. He inspires trust and allegiance, and has a strong belief in himself. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior were both charismatic leaders.

Robert House, author and originator of the Path-Goal Theory, has studied this phenomenon and defines the charismatic leader as a person who:

  • Has a dominant personality that stands out in the crowd
  • Has a strong desire to influence others
  • Possesses a strong self confidence and is equally convinced about their beliefs
  • Is firmly rooted in their moral values and is fiercely principled

The charismatic leader is successful because they have a very high level of devotion from their followers. If he is accurate in his vision and beliefs, he is very effective in ushering in change. In the course of human history, whenever sweeping change was needed, a charismatic leader usually rose up to meet the challenge. Today, when a situation requires urgent repair, the ethical charismatic leader is an invaluable asset.

The charismatic leader brings about change in the following ways:

  • They live by a compelling vision. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech describes the mental picture that drove him to risk everything for the sake of the vision.
  • They persuasively communicate the vision to their followers by presenting logical and inspiring arguments.
  • They induce their followers to want to follow. The power of coercion is not predominant here, as the relationship is highly dependant on trust.
  • They set a strong example of what it will take to turn things around. Self sacrifice, risk-taking and sometimes unconventional means are utilized.

Some charismatic leaders are not ethical and the results can be disastrous. Hitler was a charismatic leader. His leadership rallied the masses to inflict death, destruction and mass genocide. There is no guarantee that the charismatic leader’s mission will always be ethical, successful or correct. Both Gandhi and Hitler had followers who ardently supported them. Gandhi was a leader who created good and positive initiatives, while Hitler’s leadership created war and devastation with ultimately evil results.

It is critical that those supporting a charismatic leader do not fall prey to mass hysteria and “lose their heads” by relinquishing critical thinking. A charismatic leader with a good heart, possessing both knowledge and experience, is a prized treasure for any company wanting to transform its enterprise. It is important to be discerning, however, as to the wisdom of a charismatic leader’s vision or disaster can ensue. The key leadership ability is to discern wisely.