With the latest HR Most Influential list just announced, it seems like a good time to consider what makes a good leader. Being charismatic can go hand in hand with being influential, so here we explore where charisma comes from and how you can get it.
Aspiring leaders often feel pressurised by the idea of charisma: where does it come from, and how can I become the kind of charismatic leader who is not only followed, but followed with respect and maybe even some affection? And as soon as any answers are found, there are always more questions: How can I become charismatic? Is charisma the same in all arenas of work? How can this work if they see me all the time?
Charisma is typically viewed as some kind of ‘gift from God’, based on qualities possessed by the leaders themselves. What has been missing from our understanding is the attitudes of the ‘followers’: how they see their leaders, how they feel about them and why.
Our research has set out to try to explain what charismatic leadership might be by finding out more about this other side of the relationship.
What is charismatic leadership?
Rather than charisma being a set of behaviours that can be adopted, trained, or even something submissive or weak on the part of followers, we see charismatic leadership as part of a relationship between two parties.
An important question here is why do people respond in positive ways to leaders in positions of power?
Followers play an important role in ‘granting’ a leader the opportunity to be regarded as charismatic and by responding in positive ways to their leadership. The charismatic leader has to ‘claim’ that response from his or her followers by establishing a particular character.
Exploring these relationships further, it is clear there is also a relationship between charisma and love. There are different types of love, and charisma might be closer to the love of a father than to the love of a spouse or a child.
Seen in this light, charisma can be seen as a kind of patriarchy: there is a symbolic figure (whether the leader is male or female) who provides a combination of power, domination, control, rank and status, as well as demonstrating love, protection, support and fidelity.
Love and charisma
This notion of love and charisma made us curious as to whether there might be something deeper that helps to explain how the relationship between a charismatic leader and their followers might work. For example, perhaps a ‘love story’ or some other kind of narrative that might make clearer some of the ambiguity and confusion about the charismatic relationship.
We spoke with several groups of executives and MBA students who participated in executive development programmes – 144 people. From their organisational experience, they were asked to think of a person who was charismatic and reflect upon their relationship. In these groups, the anecdotes and stories had a narrative tone. Some were very dramatic, some were homely and some were quite funny. The role of emotion was found to be very important when discussing someone who was charismatic.
We then tested how far the participants related their stories with standard movie narrative genres so we could pick out some areas of common responses and feelings. The charismatic relationship was found to have the closest similarity with ‘emotions of affection and warmth’ and with ‘comedy’ and ‘family’ movie genres.
The ‘horror’ movie genre was least closely linked with the charismatic relationship and thus removed from subsequent rounds of research. In retrospect, though, given the negative emotions that many respondents attributed to their experience of charismatic leadership, it would be possible to conclude that a not unsubstantial minority of people were living out a ‘horror movie’ in their relationship with their charismatic leader.
We undertook further focus groups to allow the followers to elaborate on the nature of the identification they experienced between love and following associated with a charismatic leader. Some mentioned ‘old teacher’, ‘an old friend’ and ‘a mentor’. The emotions that were discussed were not extreme. For example, the relationship might reflect ‘affection’ rather than ‘adoration’ or ‘arousal’, ‘hope’ and ‘pride’ rather than ‘delight’ and ‘elation’, ‘sadness’ rather than ‘anger’, ‘disappointment’ rather than ‘anguish’, and ‘apprehension’ rather than ‘distress’.
For those who saw this relationship as closest to ‘emotions of affection and warmth’ and described genres of comedy and family movies, the suggested metaphors included ‘dynamic’, ‘oasis in the desert’, ‘captain’, ‘flotation device in a sea of doubts’, ‘roots of a giant family tree’, ‘big fellow with a calming voice’, ‘caring father and son’ and ‘safe happy home to go to’.
By the time we reached the final round of focus groups there were three clear clusters of experience:
Predictably, one cluster reflected a narrative that was represented by high affection and low fear. This is the ‘positive effect cluster’ – including metaphors such as ‘leadership by example’, ‘butter makes things better’, ‘many times knocked down and gets back up’, ‘wistfulness’ and ‘favourite uncle not to disappoint’.
The second cluster reflected a narrative that was represented by moderate levels of all emotions. This is the ‘positive and negative effect cluster’ – people suggested metaphors of ‘warmth of the sun’, ‘born to be wild and scary movie’, ‘chalk and cheese’ and ‘a superhero, but you know his identity’.
The third cluster reflected high anger and low levels of the other emotions. This is the ‘anger cluster’ with metaphors of ‘black sheep’, ‘fighting a war’ and ‘surviving in a life raft’.
A love/hate relationship
The research revealed something important about charismatic leadership from the perspective of the follower: it is somewhat of a love/hate relationship. In an organisational or workplace setting, of course, the nature of the dramatic narrative is far less intense and passionate. Perhaps the notion could be more like ‘love/frustration’ or ‘love/agitation’ or even ‘love/resentment’.
The suggested love/hate charismatic relationship captured within the followers’ stories highlights a complex relationship. Rather than notions of followers adoring the charismatic leader, the research has identified more of an everyday reality of kinds of respectful love, rather than blind love.
But here’s the thing. The charisma, and types of love this can lead to, doesn’t belong to the leader, it isn’t theirs. This respectful love is something bestowed onto the leader, a kind of gift from their followers. It is something that followers give voluntarily, but only on the basis of trust in the power and authority of the leader and evidence of the leader’s ongoing interest in their welfare.
The idea of a trusted uncle or aunt – a prevalent image in our research – might be helpful to understand this gifting of charisma. The trust given to an aunt or uncle does not disappear or reappear dependent on the ups and downs – the love or hate in the flux of the relationship – but is an ongoing part of the relationship. The ordinary and special close relationship of aunt and niece is anchored in lived experience, a history of care and moments of truth, guidance and wisdom, as well as of arguments and tensions. All these lead to a respectful love.
Developing a charismatic identity
In terms of thinking about what this means for manager and leader development, we don’t suggest there are somehow ‘silver bullets’ to developing charismatic leadership. Rather, we place emphasis on developing the right kinds of identity that means the experiences of followers match up in positive ways with the role of the leader. In this way, we propose that to develop charismatic leadership, managers could usefully look at, and take on, the identities that emerged from this research.
This kind of understanding can help managers to shape behaviour and management styles that would be in tune with some sympathetic and effective role models. They might be encouraged to interact with followers in the way that these models might act.
By doing this, managers can be more confident that they are having a charismatic impact on their followers and, in turn, have a greater chance of being attributed with charismatic qualities by their staff. This impact will generate positive emotions in followers, and those people will identify more effectively with the manager and what he or she stands for.
Through this research we have tried to take on the idea of ‘blind love’ in the charismatic relationship, and developed what we might instead call a ‘respectful’ love. In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica says “Love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit”.
We haven’t found evidence of ‘lovers’ in organisations. Instead, we have found affection and compassion as the emotions that reflect the charismatic leadership relationship. These emotions need to come from the charismatic leader in the first place, and only then will they tend to be reciprocated by followers, along with warmth and respect.
Steve Kempster is professional director of leadership development at Lancaster University Management School. Ken Parry is professor of leadership and director of the Centre of Leadership Studies at Australia’s Bond University.