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Charismatic Leadership


This essay gives an overview of various leadership types and focuses on the charismatic leadership. It attempts to explain the charismatic leadership process with an example of Mahatma Gandhi as a charismatic leader. It goes further and explores the attributes that a charismatic leader possesses. The essay also tries to find out various effects of charismatic leadership on the organization. While mentioning the positive effects of the charismatic leadership, it also investigates the “dark” side of the charismatic leadership. After reading the essay the readers are expected to have gained enough familiarity with this kind of leadership and at the end of the essay I would like to put forth a couple of questions regarding charismatic leadership which have remained unanswered after reading the material I have cited.


Any type of organization runs successfully when it is piloted by a skillful and influential leader. While leaders motivate their followers, it is not the only thing leaders can do. A good leader can structure the organization in the way he wants.

He represents the culture of the organization and most importantly, it has been observed that effective leaders posses a capacity to increase the productivity of the organization. Various scholars categorize leadership styles in a different way. Lewin (1939) classifies leadership styles in three categories: Autocratic Leadership, Democratic Leadership and Delegative (Laissez-Faire) Leadership [1]. Max Weber classifies leaders as Bureaucratic Leader, Traditional Leaders and Charismatic Leaders [2]. In 1978 Burns defined yet another classification: Transactional Leaders and Transformational Leaders [2]. Burns Transformational Leadership is similar to Charismatic Leadership style proposed by Weber.

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Since 1978 a lot of research has been done on various aspects of charismatic leadership. In this essay I would like to focus on charismatic leadership, its attributes and traits in charismatic leaders.

What is charismatic leadership?

Weber defines charismatic leadership as “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him” [3]. He envisaged religious leaders like Jesus as charismatic leaders. Later researches considered various social-political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi as charismatic leaders. Dictators like Hitler also had some charismatic traits. These were the leaders with exceptional qualities which made them almost god-like for their followers. The charm of such people made their followers go behind these leaders without questioning them. While analyzing such a strong bond between the leaders and his followers Weber focuses on the social patterns and conditions under which the leader exists.

However, the later researches throw light on the psychological attributes of the leaders which make them successful charismatic leaders. Research shows that charismatic leaders appeal strongly to the values of the followers and it is this psychological bondage between the two which makes the charismatic leadership succeed. Neither the sociologically oriented Weberian approach nor the psychological approach alone can explain charismatic leaders. The approaches together, however, give the better analysis of charismatic leadership.

Charismatic Leadership Process

Charismatic leadership process is seen as a compound product of three factors: The leader and his attributes, the social situation which demands for such a leader and the interaction between the leader and his followers. Charismatic leadership process undergoes six steps from the rise of the leader to the final routinization and thus the fall of the leader [4]. I would like to identify Mahatma Gandhi as a charismatic leader and explain these six steps with an example of his leadership in India’s non-violent freedom movement.

Step 1: Identification

This step takes place from the composite mixture of the three factors mentioned above. It is a stage where the aspiring leader is on the social horizon; the followers are in distress and are looking forward to someone who will identify himself with their problems. The social situation is increasingly getting worsened in this stage. This is the time when the leader establishes him as a potential leader but the followers, by large, remain passive. In Gandhi’s leadership this can be said to have taken place during the years 1915-1920 when Gandhi was back to India from a successful movement in South Africa. India had no tall leader whom it could depend on and Gandhi’s charisma was just started showing its colors (Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha) [5].

Step 2: Activity Arousal

In this step the leader arouses the follower to become the part of the change. Followers who were passive admirers of the leader till the earlier phase become active supporters of the leader and the cause for which he is identifying himself. The longer this stage lasts the longer is a span of the charismatic leadership. In Gandhi’s case this step lasted from 1920 till 1930. Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in 1921 is a precise example of activity arousal stage where he awakened the whole country to rise against the British rule [6].

Step 3: Commitment

Commitment stage in the charismatic leadership is without any doubt the most interesting step in the process. This step takes the charismatic leadership at the peak and at the same time this is the phase when the charismatic leader starts losing his charisma. This step starts by demonstrating the extreme commitment of the leader towards the goal and same commitment from the followers towards the leader. This demonstration often takes the shape of some kind of sacrifice on the part of the leader or impending danger on the leader. This sacrifice or danger makes the image of the leader as courageous and dedicated in the eyes of many followers. Interestingly, this same act makes some of the elite followers disillusioned and they start suspecting their leader as pompous and hypocrite. This is the stage where the leadership can be bifurcated into two categories as a personalized leadership and socialized leadership. The first type of leadership tends to become authoritarian and exploitative.

The second type of leader is more egalitarian and he will share power and responsibility with others. In either way, the personalized leader will become dictator and will lose his charisma and the socialized type of leader will help routinizing the leadership! The example for personalized leader can be of Hitler who ultimately became a dictator. Gandhi can be seen as a fusion of both types with definitive inclination towards socialized type of leadership. For Gandhi the commitment stage can be said to have lasted from 1930 to 1935. Salt Satyagraha can be considered as the peak of his charisma and the diplomatic failure at the Round Table Conference can be seen as the first symbol of the next step of the disenchantment [7].

Step 4: Disenchantment

This phase is quite unavoidable and sometimes even intentional on the part of the leader. Many times social structure brings the disenchantment stage. Sometimes, because the leaders themselves know that they are not immortal, they try to bring the routinization in the leadership. This routinization brings the feel of loss of goal to some followers. This step may lose some of the strongest followers from the leader. This step is also an outcome of the scenario when the leader seems to be failing. As the charismatic leaders are not very good at the formal procedural leadership [4] more routinization brings more failure and more disenchantment of the followers. In Gandhi’s case disenchantment started from 1933 and lasted till 1938 in which stage he lost many of his old followers like Subhas Chandra Bose [8]. However this is the phase where the process of routinization seemed to have taken place distinctly.

Step 5: Depersonalization

This step is a logical follower of the earlier step of disenchantment. Disenchantment starts because of routinization and it leads to the depersonalization and formalization of the leadership. The leadership style becomes more and more like bureaucratic leadership. The leader starts delegating his tasks to his followers. This phase comes in Gandhi’s leadership during 1938-1942. This is the period when he made it clear that Jawaharlal Nehru will be his political heir. It is the time when he withdrew himself partly from the active politics [9].

Step 6: Alienation

This is a process of disintegration of the three factors mentioned in the beginning which had come together in phase one. In this step, due to the formalization and bureaucratization of the leadership, charismatic leadership becomes increasingly redundant. The followers feel that the organization and the leader are going away from the initial goal and thus they start alienating themselves from the organization and the charisma of the leader fades as the social situation which has made him appeal to the masses has changed. This stage does not necessarily mean the failure of the leader. In many cases, having achieved the goal for which the charismatic leader had risen, the leader becomes redundant for his followers and the goal itself becomes redundant for the leader. Years 1942-1948 show this phase in Gandhi’s leadership. Though Gandhi remained popular and worshiped leader of India till his assassination, his charisma faded gradually in his last years [10].

Attributes of Charismatic leaders

After having described what is charismatic leadership and how does it work, it is interesting to find out what makes one a charismatic leader. What are the attributes that a charismatic leader posses or what are the traits which make someone a potential charismatic leader? It is clear from the above discussion that the actual rise of such a leader is a composite function of various variables. However, this section will try to describe the personal traits that make a person a potential leader. There are some attributes which are exhibited by a person at his childhood or adolescence which make a person potential charismatic leader. This statement is quite ambitious and somewhat exaggerated. However, the converse of the sentence is true. The research shows that charismatic leaders do show some specific pattern of behavior at their adolescence [11].

Parental Attachment Style and Parental Psychological Control [11] It has been observed that a way a child is attached to his parents in his adolescence plays important role shaping him as an effective charismatic leader. It is seen that young adult securely attached to his parents tends to form a positive relationship with his followers in the later life.

Many of the qualities possessed by a charismatic leader such as self-confidence, self-esteem are also found in a child who has a parental attachment style which is secure, autonomous and displays relatedness. These attributes are considered as positive attributes in parental attachment style for the development of a charismatic leader. It is also obvious that these qualities in the parental attachment style make the child emerging to an adult more self-aware and help him making sense of his place in the world. Empirical research suggests that charismatic leaders also have same sense of self-awareness and they are often introspective in evaluating their own beliefs. Thus, it is proposed that there is a positive relationship between parental attachment style and displays of charismatic leadership by emergent adult.

It is seen, on the other hand, that parental control impedes the development of an emergent adult. Excessive psychological control by parents on the child makes him insecure and less confident. This proves to be a barrier in his development as a charismatic leader. Parental psychological control also acts as an obstacle in establishing social relations and it create a situation of isolation for the emergent adult. Psychological control is seen as a negative factor in emergent adults’ displays of charismatic leadership

Apart from above mentioned attribute, which attempts to answer the question “who are the charismatic leaders”, there are some attributes which try to answer the question “what makes a person a charismatic leader”. Here are some traits which can be identified with the charismatic leader [12].


One of the qualities of the charismatic leaders is that they watch themselves. They are constantly aware of the fact that their followers are watching them and so they find it important that they portray a good picture of themselves for their followers. As the charismatic leaders are born out of the blend of social scenario and follower’s needs, it becomes imperative for such leaders to constantly identify themselves with that social scenario and the need. Charismatic leaders can manage that only if they monitor themselves to make sure that they are still answering to the same plea which made them such a popular leader.


Self motivation is an important part of charismatic leadership. The leader gets motivated by the social scenario without being prompted about it. He can address his followers with the vigor only when he is self-actualized himself. It has been observed that such leaders not only motivate themselves but they have a capacity to transform this self-actualization to their followers as well. They actually raise their followers from one level to the higher level.

Motive to Attain Power

Charismatic leaders often do not seek conventional power. They may not ask for an official post or position but what they look for is a social power. They want their follower to respect them and see them as their saviors. They want to win the position in their follower’s hearts. They look for identifying themselves with their follower’s values and shared beliefs. Such leaders are rated high on their social skills to persuade the masses and appeal them to their hearts. It is this power which keeps them popular for longer time.

Self Enhancement

Charismatic leaders are known for their self-correcting nature. They judge themselves on a strict scale. They continuously strive to become better. They, in fact, know that it is this “superiority” in them which makes them different from their followers. Charismatic leaders believe that when eventually they will bring their followers to their present level of “superiority”, they themselves should have gone one step above it to remain their leaders.

Openness to Change

While most of the other types of the leaders try to maintain status-quo as they are often afraid that change might depose them from the power, charismatic leaders are open to change. In fact, they represent the change and many times they prove to be the ones who bring about the changes. It is interesting to note that charismatic leaders are most powerful in the situation which demands the changes!

Outcomes of charismatic leadership

Having seen the process of the charismatic leadership and the attributes which the charismatic leaders posses, it becomes unavoidable to discuss the outcomes of the charismatic leadership. Many scholars see charismatic leadership as positive force which yields desirable results. However there are some scholars who focus on negative aspects of the charismatic leadership. We will see both sides of the charismatic leadership. It is observed that charismatic leadership motivates followers to give extra output than what is expected from them otherwise. It also achieves self-actualization in its followers [12]. It is seen that charismatic leadership works in a social structure to heighten the morale of the followers. It shapes the society the way the followers and the leader had dreamt. In the business world also the charismatic leadership works positively. It increases the overall performance of the organization. It creates a sense of fulfillment in the followers. It also creates a sense of unity and belongingness in the followers towards the organization.

Charismatic leadership also has severe negative effects in some cases. The shared vision and ideas between the leader and followers create enormous energy in the organization. The leader can employ this energy in destructive way. The more the leader’s self-confident is the more are the chances that the leader will misuse the power. It’s been observed in many cases that charismatic leaders have abused their powers. Many companies have witnessed their high rank leaders going corrupt [13]. Because of excellent communication abilities of the charismatic leaders and due to the fact that they display some kind of charisma, the whole organization follows these leaders wholeheartedly and there remain absolutely no resistance for the leader.

Without any check on the power, it doesn’t take time for the leader to go corrupt. Any healthy organization shows competition for power which also represents tussle between values and with lack of this tussle there remains no control on the leader. Followers of the charismatic leaders are so blinded by his charisma that they might even do some acts that they wouldn’t have done ordinarily. Atrocious acts by German soldiers under Hitler’s leadership are an apt example [13]. It was an unquestionable loyalty for their leader that compelled them to act in the way that they mostly wouldn’t have acted otherwise.


This essay explains enough information about the charismatic leadership. There are some questions about the charismatic leadership which have still remained unanswered. After describing the attributes of the charismatic leader and the positive and negative outcomes of the charismatic leadership, it remains unknown that what makes a charismatic leader a “hero” and what makes him a “villain”. Are there any specific attributes that make charismatic leader as a “hero” or a “villain”? The second question is regarding the “making of charismatic leaders”. After establishing that the charismatic leaders have certain characteristics, it remains to see that if everyone having those attributes can become a successful leader. And this question gives rise to yet another question that whether a charismatic leader can be “made”. Is it possible to “create” charismatic leaders by formal education? Third and last question largely depends on the first two questions: If such charismatic leaders can be created by professional training then is it possible to create a “hero” type of charismatic leaders and avoid “dark side” of the charismatic leadership?

Note: Although I have mentioned charismatic leader as him throughout the essay, the latest research shows that women are more apt to become a charismatic leaders [14]. I have mentioned the charismatic leaders as him because of the fact that most of the charismatic leaders known to the world are men and the examples which I have used are all male leaders!



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2. “Transformational Leadership” 21 November 2008

3. “Charismatic Domination” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 22 November 2008

4. Jacobsen, C. (2001). “Dynamics of charismatic leadership: A process theory, simulation model, and tests.” Leadership Quarterly 12(1): 75.
5. Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, vol. 1, revised ed., pp. 198-213, The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1960 6. Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, vol. 2, revised ed., The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1960

7. Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, vol. 3, revised ed., pp. 91-131, The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India,1960 8. Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, vol. 5, revised ed., pp. 85-101, The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1960 9. Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, vol. 6, revised ed., pp. 1-45, The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1960 10. Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, vol. 8, revised ed., The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1960

11. Towler, A. (2005). “Charismatic leadership development: role of parental attachment style and parental psychological control.” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 11(4): 15(11).

12. Jung, D. and J. J. Sosik (2006). “Who are the spellbinders? Identifying personal attributes of charismatic leaders.” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 12(4): 12(15). 13. DeCelles, K. A. and M. D. Pfarrer
(2004). “Heroes or villains? Corruption and the charismatic leader.” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 11(1): 67(11). 14. Groves, K. S. (2005). “Gender differences in social and emotional skills and charismatic leadership.” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 11(3): 30(17).

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Charismatic Leadership. (2016, Mar 22). Retrieved from

Charismatic Leadership
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