On Charisma, Charismatic Leadership, and the Most Famous Charismatic Leaders from History

Gaining Wisdom and Insights from the Charismatic Heroes and Charismatic Villains of History

“Charisma…a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”

–Max Weber, On Charisma and Institution Building,
German political economist and sociologist who popularized the term charisma
Table of Contents:
  1. List of Different Charismatic Leaders in History
    1. The Charismatic Dictators and Demagogues
    2. The Charismatic Cult Leaders
  2. Different Types of Charismatic Leadership
  3. The Charismatic Leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte
  4. Note on the Height of Napoleon Bonaparte
  5. Characteristics of Other Notable Charismatic Leaders in History
    1. Charismatic Leadership of John F. Kennedy
    2. Charismatic Leadership of Huey P. Long
    3. Charismatic Leadership of Theodore Roosevelt
    4. Charismatic Leadership of Winston Churchill
    5. Charismatic Leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt
    6. Charismatic Leadership of Joseph Stalin
    7. Charismatic Leadership of Charles de Gaulle
  6. The Five Characteristics of Charismatic Leadership
  7. The Birth of Charismatic Leadership
  8. Are there Different Types of Charismatic Leadership?
    1. Democracy or Dictatorship
    2. The Two Faces of Charisma

List of Different Charismatic Leaders in History:

Charismatic leadership can be either a powerful force for positive change or a potentially lethal weapon of mass destruction. Not only did the celebrated German sociologist, historian, and political economist Max Weber allow for different types of charismatic leadership based on distinct contexts (religious, political, military, etc.) and attitudes of followers,1 but he also allowed for different types within the same context—and even went as far as alluding to a distinction between democratic and dictatorial charisma (a critical distinction in my doctoral dissertation at Columbia).

Moreover, Glassman and Swatos (1986) suggest further that “on the one hand [Weber] presents us with examples of berserk warrior leaders, linked obviously with the blood-lust, slaughter, rape and pillage of conquest; on the other, religious prophets, linked with the extension of ethical codes and the inculcation of social justice.”2

List of Transformational Charismatic Leaders in History:

The following list of historical figures are widely considered to be transformational-charismatic leaders. Representing the enlightened side of charisma, this group of charismatic leaders is listed in the research under a variety of headings, including:
  • Transformational,
  • Positive,
  • Democratic,
  • Ethical,
  • Socialized,
  • Constructive, or
  • Empathic
  1. King David (1040—970 B.C.): King David is considered a charismatic giant of history and one of the first historical figures to be associated with the term charismatic leadership. Unlike other famous charismatic leaders from ancient history (e.g. Odysseus and Achilles), however, there is strong historical and archaeological evidence that David was an actual historical figure (recent excavations suggest there may be some truth to the legend of Achilles as well). David exemplified a number of the characteristics often attributed to charismatic leaders, including having, as Weber writes, “exceptional powers” of “divine origin,” but also a certain theatrical charm, mastery of simple, visual language and metaphor, and an ability to exploit the role of the underdog (e.g. David vs. Goliath) or effectively challenge the status quo (almost without exception, charismatic leaders are revolutionary leaders in one way or another).
  2. Alexander the Great (356—323 B.C.): Alexander the Great remains one of the most widely esteemed military leaders in the history of the world. Wisdom of History from Alexander the Great (Classic Influence—Episode #044 (Simplicity) Exploit the Hidden Power of Simplicity: Alexander the Great Fulfills the Prophecy of the Gordian KnotFew have or ever will equal his astonishing accomplishments. He was an empire builder and the cities and cultures he built still exist to this day. He led by example. He knew the names of his soldiers. He worked out with them, ate with them, conquered lands with them. In battle after battle, he personally led the charge. And his men had great admiration and respect for him as a result. An exceptionally courageous and charismatic leader, he conquered the known world, created the largest empire on earth, and laid the foundations for the Hellenistic world without ever losing a single battle. Throughout it all, history was a powerful, unmistakable part of what inspired, guided, and drove Alexander to succeed.
  3. Cleopatra (69—30 B.C.): The first time the Roman politician and general Mark Antony laid eyes on Cleopatra he was instantly infatuated. The ancient Greek historian Classic Influence Podcast (CIP 021). Milk Your Assets, Face the Brute Facts: The Cunning and Charismatic Cleopatra Assumes the Egyptian ThronePlutarch describes the spectacular arrival of Egypt’s Queen, sailing up the river on a boat gilded in gold, “its purple sails billowing in the wind, while her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes. Cleopatra herself,” writes Plutarch in Life of Antony, “reclined beneath a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed in the character of Aphrodite, as we see her in paintings, while on either side to complete the picture stood boys costumed as Cupids who cooled her with their fans. Instead of a crew the barge was lined with the most beautiful of her waiting-women attired as Nereids and Graces, some at the rudders, others at the tackle of the sails, and all the while an indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the riverbanks. Great multitudes accompanied this royal progress, some of them following the queen on both sides of the river from its very mouth, while others hurried down from the city of Tarsus to gaze at the sight.” But Cleopatra did not get to where she was that day with mere makeup and music. In fact, contrary to popular myth, it was charisma and courage, self-belief and brains, not beauty, that set Cleopatra apart, and enabled her to defy thousands of years of tradition to seize the Egyptian throne. Learn more about Cleopatra in Classic Influence Podcast episode #21: Milk Your Assets, Face the Brute Facts: The Cunning and Charismatic Cleopatra Assumes the Egyptian Throne
  4. Attila the Hun (C. 406—453 A.D.): Leader of a tribal empire in Central Europe during the 5th century, Attila was a grave threat to both the Eastern and Western Roman empires.
  5. Charlemagne (748—814 A.D.)
  6. Ragnar Lothbrok (C. 8th Century A.D.): Viking leader, explorer, and hero. Ragnar Lothbrok was the mostClassic-Influence-Podcast-(CIP-023)_Construct-Heroic-Life-History_Ragnar-Lothbrok_The-Everlasting-Legend-of-the-Viking-Leader famous Viking of his age. He is perhaps best known for the sacking of Paris in 845 A.D., not long after earlier invasions in West Francia. Learn more about Ragnar Lothbrok in Classic Influence episode #23: Construct Your Own Heroic Life History: Ragnar Lothbrok, The Everlasting Legend of the Viking Leader
  7. Joan of Arc (1412—1431): Born into a peasant family in northeast France during the Late Medieval Era, Joan of Arc was still in her mid teens when she was inspired to lead a divine military mission in the midst of the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Professing to see visions, and hear the voices of St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and St. Michael the Archangel, Joan Wisdom of History from Joan of Arc, the Maid or Orleans (Classic Influence—Episode #043 (Self-Belief) Believe Absolutely to Inspire Absolute Belief: Joan of Arc Turns the Tide of the Hundred Years' War traveled to Chinon to find France’s Dauphin (heir apparent), Charles VII, to plead her case and, with his permission, lead France’s military forces to victory over the British, restore him to his proper place of power, and ensure his coronation as the rightful King of France. After having her claims and background fully investigated, he decided to allow her to accompany the French troops in a relief expedition to Orléans. Escaping what was almost certain death, including being wounded by an arrow in the shoulder, Joan of Arc inspired the French troops with her courage and presence on the battlefield, and, after little more than a week, the French troops ended the siege, and rescued the strategic and symbolically significant city of Orleans. It was a key victory, and proved to be a watershed in the Hundred Years’ War. Known as “The Maid of Orléans,” she was later canonized as a saint. Learn more about Joan of Arc in Classic Influence episode #43: Believe Absolutely to Inspire Absolute Belief: Joan of Arc Turns the Tide of the Hundred Years’ War
  8. George Washington (1732—1799): As the first President of the United States, George Washington had a profound influenceLeverage the Paradox of Self-Reliance_General George Washington Wins the War By First Building Belief and Rapport on the American presidency, political leadership throughout the nation, and the American way of life. Washington was also the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and was responsible for the surrender of the British at Yorktown in 1781. Learn more about General George Washington in Classic Influence episode #17: Leverage the Paradox of Self-Reliance: General George Washington Wins the War By First Building Belief and Rapport.
  9. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769—1821): Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France from 1804 to 1815. He was one of the greatest military commanders in history. Classic Influence Podcast—CIP 031. Take Bold Action (Part 1): Be Bold and Let Boldness Do Its Work: Napoleon Bonaparte Escapes His Island PrisonHe helped preserve many of the gains of the French Revolution, and he completely changed the balance of power in Europe. Though many of the changes he implemented were lost after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon left an indelible imprint on the pages of history. To learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte check out Classic Influence episode #31: Take Bold Action (Part 1): Be Bold and Let Boldness Do Its Work: Napoleon Bonaparte Escapes His Island Prison.
  10. Abraham Lincoln (1809—1865): Not all leadership scholars are comfortable characterizing Abraham Lincoln as a charismatic leader. However, Lincoln certainly shared a number of characteristics in common with charismatic leaders, including his frequent use of storytelling, metaphor, and simple but visually compelling language. He also took a bold stand against the status quo (i.e. slavery) and emerged as a revolutionary leader, another nearly universal characteristic of charismatic leaders. Lincoln’s numerous religious references and allusions also helped to forge a charismatic bond with his followers in the North. His ability to win over formal rivals (including William Seward who told his wife that Lincoln was unlike any man he had ever known) and pass controversial legislation also attest to Lincoln’s charisma and powers of persuasion. Lincoln’s powerful effect on people also reinforces attributions of charisma, including other members of Lincoln’s cabinet which, as Harvard Business Review explains, “One after another, they came to power thinking Lincoln was rather unexceptional and ended up believing that he was as near a perfect man as anyone they’d ever met.”
  11. William Gladstone (1809—1898): British Prime Minister (four different times!)
  12. Theodore Roosevelt (1858—1919): The 26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest Americans that ever lived, and certainly one of the most accomplished. As historian Edmund Morris writes, Theodore Roosevelt was “a Nobel prizewinner, a physical culturalist, a naval historian, a biographer, an essayist, a paleontologist, a taxidermist, an Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, 1st U.S. Volunteer Calvary. Classic Influence (CIP 033), Take Bold Action (Part 3)ornithologist, a field naturalist, a conservationist, a big-game hunter, an editor, a critic, a ranchman, an orator, a country squire, a civil service reformer, a socialite, a patron of the arts, a colonel of the cavalry, a former Governor of New York, the ranking expert on big-game mammals in North America and the President of the United States.” Central to Roosevelt’s charisma was his irrepressible enthusiasm, self-confidence, and energy (which may be explained, at least in part, by his “lifelong habit of popping nitroglycerin pills for a dicey heart”), which was perhaps captured best by Henry Adams when he wrote of Roosevelt, “Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of facts…Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter–he was pure Act.”
  13. William Jennings Bryan (1860—1925): William Jennings Bryan, three-time U.S. presidential nominee, was famous for his eloquent, stirring speeches. A populist and a pacifist, Bryan served as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, but he is also remembered for arguing against Clarence Darrow in the infamous Scopes Trial (high school teacher John Scopes was accused of teaching human evolution, which was illegal in Tennessee). William Jennings Bryan was a magnetic, mesmerizing speaker who repeatedly put his faith in the wisdom of the common people, earning the nickname “The Great Commoner.”
  14. Mahatma Gandhi (1869—1948): Mahatma Gandhi stands today as a global icon. Along with a compelling shared vision, Win Lasting Influence: Listen for the Underlying Need: Mahatma Gandhi on the Wisdom of Listening to Build a Charismatic Foundation of InfluenceGandhi’s charisma was, to a significant extent, based on his close bond with the great mass of Indian people, most especially the downtrodden and poor. Rather than attempting to draw on the power of various authority figures, Gandhi worked hard to establish clear connections with the masses of India’s poor. He even went as far as staying in the slums when he traveled, and riding on the railway with the “untouchables.” When British viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten witnessed Gandhi departing with a large group of “untouchables,” in the cheapest class rail, he expressed his surprise to one of Gandhi’s close advisors. It was, after all, a serious security risk. But, Gandhi’s advisor explained, they had all been carefully selected and checked for guns and weapons in advance. “You have no idea,” Gandhi’s advisor said to Lord Mountbatten, “what it costs to keep that old man in poverty!” (Fadiman pgs. 225-226). Gandhi insisted on the extra work and expense because of how it would further reinforce his charismatic bond with the people, the idea that he was one of them, a man of the people, and how it would help the word his message.
  15. Winston Churchill (1874—1965):
  16. General Douglas MacArthur (1880—1964): General of the Army for the United States
  17. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882—1945): By the time of his death on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Classic Influence Podcast—CIP 030. Profit from the Power of Frames to Achieve Your Aims: President Franklin Roosevelt Reframes His Race for a 3rd TermRoosevelt was the longest serving President in U.S. history, and was widely judged to be one of the greatest. Under his leadership, America had emerged from the Great Depression and turned the tide in World War II.

  18. Fiorello La Guardia (1882—1947): The 99th Mayor of New York City, La Guardia served during one of the most tumultuous periods in America, the latter half of the Great Depression and World War II. The 5’2″ La Guardia stood out for his energetic, feisty, and charismatic personality. Today, the Republican politician is often acclaimed as one of the greatest mayors in American history.
  19. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884—1962): Eleanor Roosevelt began her life as a shy, introverted personality. In time, however, as she adapted to her position as First Lady and the most visible emissary of Franklin Roosevelt who was often confined to his wheelchair, Eleanor grew to become far more outspoken, gregarious and charismatic. By the time FDR died, Eleanor had come into her own as a charismatic leader and a powerful voice for a number of progressive causes.
  20. General George S. Patton (1885—1945): General Patton was a charismatic, courageous, and flamboyant hero of World War II. He stands today as the Episode Quote Card for CIP 039. Courage Under Fire General George Pattonpersonification of ruthless drive and the relentless will to win. General Patton had a colorful personality and a flashy style. He deliberately modeled himself as an exceptional leader, even to the point of practicing his “war face” in front of the mirror. He is often remembered for his courage, but also his occassional arrogance and lack of empathy. Nicknamed "Old Blood and Guts," he was widely admired by the men under his command though his soldiers sometimes derided his approach, saying "our blood, his guts."

  21. Walt Disney (1901—1966): A pioneer in animation and film, Walter Elias Disney was an American entrepreneur, animator, writer, and film producer. The Golden Globe, Emmy Award winning film producer holds the record for the most Academy Awards (22 Oscars and 59 Oscar nominations).
  22. Ronald Reagan (1911—2004)
  23. John F. Kennedy (1917—1963): John F. Kennedy was the youngest person ever elected to the office of the President of the United States. Classic-Influence-Podcast-(CIP-020)_Surface-Your-Submerged-Assumptions_JohnKennedy-and-the-Curious-Consensus-for-the-Bay-of-PigsIt is often said that his assassination took away America’s innocence. He is remembered for advancing NASA’s space program and his vision of landing a man on the moon. He is also remembered for his disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, but also his triumphant handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Learn more about JFK in Classic Influence Podcast episode 20: Surface Your Submerged Assumptions: President Kennedy and the Curious Consensus for the Bay of Pigs (Part 2 of 2)
  24. Nelson Mandela (1918—2013)
  25. Eva Perón (1919—1952)
  26. Lee Iacocca (1924—2019): American automobile executive who helped develop the Ford Mustang and later became the CEO of Chrysler.
  27. Robert F. Kennedy (1925—1968)
  28. Marilyn Monroe (1926—1962):
  29. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929—1968): Martin Luther King Jr. stands as one of history’s greatest revolutionary leaders. Confronted with one of the most difficult, Classic-Influence-Podcast-(CIP-029). MLK on Reflection in Action, Reflection on Action deep-rooted problems, opposed by some of the most vicious, hate-filled racists, Dr King was able to find a path forward again and again. Learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. in Classic Influence Podcast episode #29: Wield Power with Wisdom, Get Both in and Out of the Game: Martin Luther King Jr. Assumes Leadership, Becomes the Symbol of the Civil Rights Movement
  30. Bill Clinton (1946— ): Bill Clinton was the 42nd U.S. President.
  31. Barack Obama (1961— ): Serving as the United States Senator from Illinois for less than three years, in 2008 Barack Obama was elected as the 44th U.S. President and the nation’s first African American president.

List of History's Authoritarian Charismatic Leaders:

The following list of historical figures are widely considered to be authoritarian-charismatic leaders. Representing the “dark side of charisma,” this group of charismatic leaders is listed in the research under a variety of opposing headings, including:
  • Authoritarian,
  • Negative,
  • Dictatorial,
  • Unethical,
  • Personalized,
  • Destructive, or
  • Pathological

The Charismatic Dictators and Demagogues

  1. Julius Caesar (100—44 B.C.)
  2. Joseph Stalin (1878—1953)
  3. Benito Mussolini (1883—1945): the charismatic Italian political leader who founded the National Fascist Party. Mussolini came to power through a coup d’état in 1922. Mussolini inspired a number of other far-right radical dictators including Adolf Hitler and the Spanish charismatic dictator Francisco Franco.
  4. Adolf Hitler (1889—1945)
  5. Ho Chi Minh (1890—1969): Vietnamese revolutionary who served as the Prime Minister and President of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death of heart failure in 1969. While he masked his militant revolutionary activities behind the facade of a benevolent uncle or a kindly teacher, “he steadfastly pursued his goals regardless of cost in suffering or loss of life.” He supported a massive purge of non-communists that led to the execution of some 100,000 people (some experts put the figure at 500,000). His slogan was “It is better to kill ten innocent people than to let one enemy escape.”5
  6. Father Charles Coughlin (1891—1979): Canadian-American Roman Catholic priest who became a wildly popular radio personality during the Great Depression. Coughlin started out criticizing the extremes of capitalism, but overtime he increasingly became anti-democratic, eventually calling for the end of political parties and challenging the value of democratic elections.
  7. Huey P. Long (1893—1935): American politician who served as the 40th governor of Louisiana, and a U.S. Photos of Huey Long for Classic Influence Episode 032. Take Bold Action (Part 2): Dare to Defy the Established Order, Risk to Skip Ahead: Huey Long Cuts a Barrier-Breaking Path to the TopSenator. Long was a fierce advocate for the poor and oppressed people of Louisiana who did a great deal to alleviate their suffering. Nevertheless, he was also a demagogue who believed it was necessary to “fight fire with fire,” and, thus, was willing, at times, to employ morally dubious methods to achieve his admirable aims.
  8. Chairman Mao Zedong (1893—1976)
  9. J. Edgar Hoover (1895—1972): Hoover was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), serving from 1924 to 1972 (totaling 48 years, under 8 presidents). Hoover is largely credited with building the FBI into one of the greatest crime fighting institutions in the world. However, he is also remembered for his secretive abuses of power, often exceeding the jurisdiction of the FBI, using illegal methods, targeting political dissenters and generally undermining freedom and peaceful, democratic dissent. In fact, Hoover’s power grew to such an extent that he was able to intimidate several sitting U.S. presidents.
  10. Juan Perón (1895—1974): a charismatic military leader and politician, Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina three times. A great admirer of Benito Mussolini, Perón consistently claimed to be fighting for the poor and working class, but he frequently relied dictatorial rule and organized violence to achieve his aims.
  11. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1907—1971): Papa Doc was a Haitian political leader who served as president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. He used Haitian mythology to form a cult of personality in support of his fierce hold on power. He also used a secret death squad to indiscriminately murder his political opponents. Duvalier created such a climate of fear in Haiti that regular citizens would not dare to say anything negative about him even in private to trusted friends. In 1964, he declared himself President for Life.
  12. Joseph McCarthy (1908—1957): a Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy was the charismatic demagogue behind the communist witch hunt and the widespread fear of communist infiltration in America known as the Red Scare or McCarthyism. McCarthy and his supporters used fear and smear tactics to attack his enemies, accusing them of foreign espionage and
  13. Malcolm X (1925—1965): Muslim minister and popular civil rights leader.
  14. Pol Pot (1925—1998)
  15. Margaret Thatcher (1925—2013): British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher was the leader of the conservative party. Dubbed the “Iron Lady,” Thatcher was a cold, polarizing figure. Poverty and unemployment both doubled under her reign.
  16. Idi Amin (1925—2003): Known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” Idi Amin was a Ugandan military and political leader who became president of Uganda (1971 to 1979) after executing a successful military coup d’état. With estimates ranging between 100,000 and 500,000 deaths as the result of his despotic rule, Idi Amin is considered one of the most brutal despots in history. A boxing champion who served in the British Army, the extremely charismatic and flamboyant Idi Amin began his rule with a number of popular actions, but he was a brutal, bloodthirsty tyrant who butchered his opponents and was completely incompetent in regards to effectively ruling a nation state. Typical of dictators and tyrants, Idi Amin was extremely paranoid and reportedly fed several of his own ministers to crocodiles.
  17. Fidel Castro (1926—2016): Beginning his rise to power as a charismatic revolutionary hero, Fidel Castro rose to become the Prime Minister of Cuba, serving from 1959 to 1976, and then President of Cuba from 1976 to 2008.
  18. Che Guevara (1928—1967): Physician, Marxist revolutionary leader, military theorist, author, and guerrilla leader; Che Guevara was a man of many talents and a major figure in the Cuban revolution.
  19. Donald Trump (1946— ):

The Charismatic Cult Leaders

  1. Grigori Rasputin (1869—1916): Rasputin was more than a cult leader. The Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man had a charismatic following that some described as a sex cult, but he also became an advisor to the last emperor of Russia, Czar Nocholas II and his wife Alexandra, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
  2. Sun Myung Moon (1920—2012): Born in North Korea, Moon claimed to be the messiah. “”God is living in me and I am the incarnation of Himself,” Moon boldly proclaimed. He was the founder of the Unification Movement. The followers in his cult were known as Moonies. As with most every cult leader, Moon used “love-bombing” to make lonely recruits feel like they were a “special” part of a loving community. But Moon had his own sinister purposes. “The whole world is in my hand and I will conquer and subjugate the world,” he said. As with virtually every cult leader and dictator (or crime boss, for that matter), absolute loyalty was an absolute requirement in Moon’s inner circle. In fact, his followers were taught to revere him as “the greatest man who ever lived.” In the words of one of Moon’s former lieutenants, Harvard Medical School’s Steven Hassan, “If we had doubts or criticisms, we were taught to block, or “thought stop,” them. If we dared disagree or point out inconsistencies, we would be kicked out.” A radical conservative, Moon tried to stop the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. He was also a powerful businessman and the owner of The Washington Times.
  3. Jim Jones (1931—1978): Cult leader of the Peoples Temple. Known as the Jonestown Massacre, Jim Jones led some 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced punch.
  4. Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997): Also known as “Do,” Marshall Applewhite was the charismatic cult leader behind the doomsday cult known as Heaven’s Gate (co-founded with Bonnie Nettles, the co-leader of the cult). The Heaven’s Gate cult came to an end in March 1997 when the 39 members (a number of which, including Applewhite, had been surgically castrated) committed mass suicide so that they could ascend to the spaceship that was accompanying the Hale-Bopp Comet (which was passing Earth at the time and visible to the naked eye for a record 18 months). Applewhite had convinced the group that by “forsaking” their human bodies their spirits would “evacuate the Earth” and be released to join the Hale-Bopp spaceship for a journey to another planet where they would live in paradise.
  5. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990): Indian cult leader known for starting the Rancho Rajneesh commune in Oregon in the 1980s
  6. Charles Manson (1934-2017): Manson was the charismatic cult leader behind the notorious Manson Family murders.
  7. Yahweh ben Yahweh (1935-2007): Ben Yahweh was the charismatic cult leader of the Nation of Yahweh, a separatist religious sect in Miami which claimed to have some 20,000 followers. He was supposedly a business titan overseeing a business and real estate empire valued at $8 million, but was actually the head of a violent cult that used murder, extortion, arson, and racketeering to achieve their ends. Though he claimed to be fighting to alleviate black poverty, he reportedly ruled his own cult like a vicious Medieval despot.
  8. Shoko Asahara (1955-2018): Asahara was the charismatic cult leader behind the Japanese doomsday cult known as Aum Shinrikyo. The so-called “Supreme Truth” leader was the mastermind behind the 1995 sarin-gas attack that killed 14 people and injured more than 5,000 people on the Tokyo subway.
  9. David Koresh (1959-1993): David Koresh was the charismatic cult leader of the Branch Davidians.
  10. Keith Raniere (1960- ): Keith Raniere was the charismatic cult leader of NXIVM, which claimed to be a multi-level marketing company, but was actually a cult that used personal development seminars to recruit several celebrities and socialites. NXIVM’s inner circle was a sort of secret sorority that was allegedly dedicated to women’s empowerment, but reportedly lured rich and famous women into sex slavery. In 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
*Note: Unfortunately, charismatic cult leaders are anything but history. In fact, experts estimate that there are “now more than 5,000 destructive cults operating in the United States” today (Hassan, The Cult of Trump (2019), p. 17).
Transformational or Authoritarian? Time, Context, Perception, and Relationship Matters Perceptions about the charismatic relationship or charismatic bond that leaders have with their followers often depend on the individual followers and the particular relationship they have with the leader. They can also vary across time and context. Further, akin to the way in which charisma is often said to be “in the eye of the beholder,” whether or not a leader can be aptly characterized as a transformational leader or an authoritarian leader also depends on circumstances, perception, context, etc. In the list of transformational charismatic leaders above, for example, a case could be made to characterize the following leaders as acting or speaking in a way that more aptly reflects the authoritarian-charismatic type of leadership: Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Eva Perón. Likewise, in the list of authoritarian charismatic leaders above, a case could be made to characterize the following leaders as acting or speaking in a way that more aptly reflects the transformational-charismatic type of leadershp: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Grigori Rasputin. Charisma’s Shades of Grey: Other charismatic leaders who exhibited both transformational and authoritarian characteristics and are thus more difficult to classify definitively include:
  1. Steve Jobs
  2. Arnold Schwarzenegger
  3. Franz Mesmer (1734—1815): German doctor known for his theory of “animal magnetism,” or “mesmerism,” which attracted a wide following in Europe throughout his lifetime. Though his wacky theory was disproven (by Ben Franklin, among others), his ability to influence his patients with his techniques, known as mesmerism, was a precursor to hypnotism.

Different Types of Charismatic Leadership:

Many charisma researchers and scholars of charismatic leadership, influence, and power argue that the different types of charismatic leadership can be differentiated based on the different needs that one or another type of relationship can satisfy for the followers of the charismatic leader.3  Howell and Shamir (2005) lay out the distinctions as follows:

TRANSFORMATIONAL-CHARISMATIC LEADERSHIP—Socialized Charismatic Relationship: “In the socialized relationship, followers have a clear sense of self and a clear set of values, and the charismatic relationship provides them with a means for expressing their important values within the framework of a collective action.  Followers in this type of relationship derive their sense of direction and self-expression not from personal identification with the leader but from the leader’s message. In this relationship followers place constraints on the leader’s influence, play an active role in determining the values expressed by the leader, are less dependent on the leader, and are less open to manipulation by the leader.”

AUTHORITARIAN-CHARISMATIC LEADERSHIP—Personalized Charismatic Relationship: “In the personalized relationship, followers are confused and disoriented before joining the relationship, and the charismatic relationship provides them with a clearer sense of self and greater self-confidence.  This type of relationship is based mainly on followers’ personal identification with the leader, rather than on their identification with or acceptance of the leader’s message. Lacking a strong internal reference point from which to judge the leader’s messages and influence attempts, followers in this type of relationship are dependent on and vulnerable to the leader.4

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon

Napoleon Bonaparte

Essence of Influence: Military success, mastery of communication and propaganda.
Key Strengths: Courage, ambition, intelligence.

The Charismatic Leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Widely considered one of history’s greatest military commanders, Napoleon Bonaparte began his rise through the ranks as a socially and economically “inferior Corsican outsider.” Demonstrating considerable charisma, courage and talent as a military tactician, Napoleon rose to command the Italian Army while France’s revolutionary leaders increasingly lost their way. While his military successes forged the basis of his legend and his charismatic bond with his followers, Napoleon further demonstrated his strategic prowess in the way he effectively cultivated this legend in the minds of the French by making strategic use of wartime propaganda—including electrifying dispatches from the front, in-depth articles and bulletins published throughout France, and glorious paintings of a triumphant Napoleon—all of which he used to further promote himself and his purpose (to lead France), demonize his enemies, and subtly highlight the incompetence of the French Directory, the five-member committee which governed France, but was proving to be a major failure. When, at last, the French Revolution was on the brink of destruction, Napoleon intervened to save it, eventually crowning himself Emperor of France, with the popular support of the French people, who were by now completely captivated by this charismatic leader, and his legendary military victories. As Emperor, he enshrined the freedom, liberty, and equality gained in France’s Revolution in law, known as the Napoleonic Code, which was adopted in various forms by legal systems around the world.
  1. Charismatic Leaders are Revolutionary: Rarely, if ever, are charismatic leaders found defending the status quo. In contrast, charismatic leaders are virtually always about revolution, breakthrough innovation or some sort of significant change. “The charismatic, revolutionary hero, Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon, with a new court, new legal codes, a new educational system, and a new administration” (The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, Pg. 198).
  2. Charismatic Leaders Have an Emotional Connection with Followers: “Charisma is an emotional bond among co-present actors and, therefore, differs from context to context in idiosyncratic ways. Consequently, what counts as charismatic in one case—Charles de Gaulle’s towering frame—may well appear as counterintuitive in another—Napoleon Bonaparte’s shortness” (Charismatic Leadership and Social Movements: The Revolutionary Power of Ordinary Men and Women, Pg. 167).
  3. Charismatic Leaders are Perceived to be Successful: When the leader is unable to continue to produce results, the “magic” stops and the followers no longer perceive the leader as charismatic (This is part of the story of Sarah Palin as well as Barack Obama and Donald Trump—the moment leaders stop producing results for their followers, their charisma begins to fade.).

    “As [Max] Weber observed, charismatic leadership obtains devotion from followers by seeming to be able to perform miracles. According to Weber, the personal leader possesses magical charisma, is heroic, and specifically extraordinary. The most interesting difference between ordinary social power and charismatic leadership is that charisma is temporary. […] According to Max Weber retention of this power by the leader depends upon the continuing affirmation of his disciples. When the miracles stop, the magic evaporates, a challenger overcomes the leader, the crisis ends, or the enemies win, his charisma wanes and the extraordinary person reverts to ordinary status. […] Even Weber’s archetype of the charismatic leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, could not work miracles forever” (Tabernacle of Hate: Seduction into Right-Wing Extremism, Pg. xxi).

    Interestingly, this “inability to work miracles forever” (along with the power of the printing press to communicate that inability) is also, in part, what slowly helped create space for other forms of leadership, challenging the longstanding domination of monarchs across Europe, including in France just before the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Weber writes, “If proof and success elude the leader for long, if he appears deserted by his god or his magical or heroic powers, above all, if his leadership fails to benefit his followers, it is likely that his charismatic authority will disappear. This is the genuine meaning of the divine right of kings” (Bezio 2013, p. 33). Nevertheless, Like beauty, “charisma is in the eye of the beholder,” and, therefore, blindly obedient followers can sometimes rationalize away the charismatic leader’s lack of results, especially if the leader is able to invent a compelling excuse. What’s more, as Lang explains, “History…confers more or less permanent charisma on those whose reputation survives their tenure–Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and even the evil geniuses of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin.”
  4. Charismatic Leaders Embody the Vision: The vision is vital to the charismatic bond between leaders and their followers. The more the leader embodies the vision that he or she is articulating, the more followers will attribute that leader with charisma. In the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, he both embodied the ideals of the French Revolution, as well as the strength and stability that the French craved following the years of chaos of the revolution and the reign of terror. “It is I who embody the French Revolution,” Napoleon said (Cronin, p. 300). Another example is Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. When he talked about his vision of hope and change, he couldn’t help but be authentic. The very color of his skin represented a welcome change in America for a great many Americans, significantly increasing the perception of Obama as a charismatic leader.
  5. Charismatic Leaders Act with Bold, Unshakeable Conviction: Charismatic leaders have a knack for appearing to be decisive, and having clear convictions. That does not, however, mean that they do not take time to think things through in advance. The most effective charismatic leaders do take time to make important decisions, but they also understand the importance of appearances, and the need to project strength and confidence and conviction about the decisions they make. The lesson is clear: Make your decisions carefully. Be strategic and purpose-driven. But once you make up your mind, abandon any remaining hesitation and doubt. Give it 100% of all you’ve got. As Napoleon said himself, “Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.” When Napoleon returned from Elba to retake France, he understood that he might be putting his life at risk. But he also understood that if he was to win his men over, he needed his confidence, and conviction about his purpose, to appear absolute. “Of course Louis XVIII sent armies to arrest him. But,” writes Andrew Roberts in Smithsonian “the commanders, Marshals Nicolas Soult and Michel Ney, and their men switched sides the moment they came into contact with the charisma of their former sovereign.” Learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Island Prison Escape, and how, indeed, “Fortune favors the Bold.
  6. Charismatic Leaders Have a Capacity for Self-Promotion: You could have all of the charisma in the world, but, as John Maxwell put it, “if no one is following you, then you are just going for a walk.” Charismatic leaders, in other words, have to have followers, and in order to have followers, people have to know they exist. This is where the charismatic leader’s capacity for vision casting and self-promotion is key. In the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, he was a master of self-promotion. As David Bell writes in Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution, “Napoleon Bonaparte was a ceaseless self-promoter who sometimes seemed to spend almost as much energy celebrating his victories as he did winning them” (Pg. 20).
The Height of Napoleon Bonaparte (Short Stature Facts)

Note on the Height of Napoleon Bonaparte. For some reason there remains significant controversy and misinformation about the height of Napoleon Bonaparte. For well over a century, it was universally reported that Napoleon was 5’2″ (five feet, two inches tall). Recently, however, inexplicably, numerous websites, including Google, are stating that Napoleon was 5’6″ (five foot, six inches tall). Along with the fact that his own soldiers nicknamed him Le Petit Caporal (“The Little Corporal”), there are also paintings showing Napoleon standing (significantly, in some cases) shorter than others, including his guards, but also his own wife, Josephine. Napoleon was also assigned to the artillery, in part, because of his short stature. He was short for an officer and, for those serving in the infantry and cavalry, preference was given to those who were taller. The best evidence for his short stature, however, comes from his own valet. As Owen Connelly reports in Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns, “After his death at St. Helena, his body was measured by his valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, at cinq pieds, deux pouces (five feet, two inches). On the assumption that his corpse was measured with a French yardstick, which is longer than the British (the French foot equals 33 cm, the British equals 30.47 cm), some historians have decided that Napoleon was 5 foot 6 inches tall, converting 5 foot 2 inches French to 5 foot 6 inches English. Since the French had been on the metric system since 1793, however, and since Napoleon had used all means to make the French convert to it, it is [highly] doubtful that his entourage carried a yardstick from the Old Regime. Thus, it is almost certain that he was measured with an English yardstick.” It is not clear why this new misinformation persists, but the truth is that Napoleon was not of “average” height for his day. He was short. Given that average heights are increasing, Napoleon, comparatively, would be approximately 5’5″ or 5’6″ today.

John F. Kennedy as a Charismatic Leader and an Inspirational Force for Change

Jack Kennedy

Essence of Influence: Vision, Popularity.
Key Strengths: Intelligence,  Courage, Élan.

The Charismatic Leadership of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

  1. Charismatic Leaders Exude Self-Confidence: Self-confidence is one of the key factors in forming a charismatic bond with followers, and John F. Kennedy was no exception. What most people do not realize, however, is that a hint of insecurity or self-doubt can greatly amplify the charismatic effect. Most people are attracted to self-confident people. We want to be like them, and we tend to trust them more than those who lack self-confidence (which tend to put us more on guard, as if something is wrong). But when a self-confident person also gives an occasional glimpse of self-doubt, then we find them even more relatable which increases their charismatic appeal.
Huey P. Long

Huey Pierce Long Jr.

Essence of Influence: Popularity with the Poor.
Key Strengths: Audacity, Intelligence,  Energy, Boldness.

The Charismatic Leadership of Huey P. Long (1893-1935)

  1. Charismatic Leaders are Willing to Fight for their Followers: Huey Long was willing to go up against the most powerful political and economic interests in Louisiana on behalf of the poor and oppressed people in his state and, later, across the United States. He saw how the poor were suffering. He knew of their hunger, their joblessness, their lack of schooling and healthcare. He also knew how excessively rich and corrupt were the political and economic elites. And he worked tirelessly in his fight against these elites to bring relief to the poor. This willingness to risk his own interests for his followers can be a powerful force for charismatic appeal. As Irvine Schiffer writes in Charisma: A Psychoanalytic Look at Mass Society (1973), “…The stance that heroically disposed people want from a leader is of necessity a stand for action.” In effect, people looking for a charismatic object for this projection are searching for someone ready to fight with another person or persons and ready to become victor or victim, winner or loser” (P. 38).
The Charisma of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Essence of Influence: Popularity, Contagious energy, Vision. Key Strengths: Intelligence, Will, Courage, Grit, Work Ethic.

Learn more about Theodore Roosevelt’s powerful work ethic in Classic Influence CIP 024: Cast Off the Culture of Comfort, Convenience, and Ease: Theodore Roosevelt Becomes the Apostle of the Strenuous Life.


The Charismatic Leadership of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

  1. Broadcast Your Personality: Part of attracting people to the leader’s vision is spreading the word and broadcasting the personality of the charismatic leader. Theodore Roosevelt was often considered charismatic among the various diverse circles he traveled, but when he was able to project his personality through the press and the media, he was able to draw in a much wider audience and base of support. “TR seized new opportunities for publicity through the mass media, to which he owed much for his fame and his charisma.” –America Ascendant: From Theodore Roosevelt to FDR in the Century of American Power, 1901-1945, Pg. 49.
Winston Churchill British Prime Minister

Winston Churchill

Essence of Influence: Vision, oratory, grit.
Key Strengths: Perseverance, Courage, Audacity.

The Charismatic Leadership of Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

  1. Recognize that Some Will Resist Charisma: Some people and groups will resist the charismatic leader, and deny their charismatic appeal. These are usually those types who strive to downplay or discount emotions, and elevate logic and reason instead. This is not to suggest, however, that these people will not still feel an underlying pull toward charismatic leaders. This, in part, helps to explain Winston Churchill’s experience in England. As much as the British people admired and respected Churchill, they tended as a whole to lean more toward a rational appraisal of Prime Minister Churchill as a leader. Thus, they judged him to be the leader they needed throughout World War II, but not the leader they needed in the following period of peace. As American political scientist Ann Ruth Willner writes: “In my initial version of this study I referred to Churchill as a possible situational charismatic. It was tempting to envision him as one of a long line of legendary and historic heroes, starting with St. George, who came to the rescue of England in her time of desperation. Unable, however, to find evidence of charismatically oriented perceptions of Churchill by his countrypeople, I also suggested that the British may not be susceptible to charismatic affect, that they can admire and esteem but not adore. This suggestion has since been confirmed by Dennis Kavanagh in his study of Churchill’s leadership.” -Willner, Ruth Ann (1985). The Spellbinders: Charismatic Political Leadership Pg. 41.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Essence of Influence: Popularity, Shrewd Political Maneuvering, Oratory, Charisma

Key Strengths: Resilience, Willpower, Grit, and Mastery of Frames.

Learn more about FDR’s mastery of framing in Classic Influence CIP 030: Profit from the Power of Frames to Achieve Your Aims: President Franklin Roosevelt Reframes His Race for a 3rd Term.

Classic Influence Podcast—CIP 030. Profit from the Power of Frames to Achieve Your Aims: President Franklin Roosevelt Reframes His Race for a 3rd Term

The Charismatic Leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)

  1. Charismatic Leaders Expect and Even Welcome Opposition and Resistance. Charismatic leaders are often divisive figures who must learn to deal with dissent. It’s not because they set out to be divisive, but because they stand for progress and change and, therefore, they stand in opposition to what they believe is an unacceptable status quo. And, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.” Of course, most every significant leader will have their critics and opponents and, in many cases, outright enemies. Usually, the greater and more powerful the leader the stronger the opposition. This is also true for charismatic leaders. Heale writes of Franklin Roosevelt: “If his enemies reviled him with a chilling bitterness, this was in part because his confidence and charisma early made him a president of massive stature. The poet Carl Sandburg in a radio broadcast in 1940 spoke of the president as ‘a not perfect man and yet more precious than fine gold.'” Clearly, Roosevelt’s “massive stature,” along with his New Deal program, was a threat to many powerful interests and resulted in a great deal of dissent. But this did not deter Roosevelt at all. In fact, referring to the “the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering” President Roosevelt said, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” —Heale, Michael (2002). Franklin D. Roosevelt: The New Deal and War, pg. 4.
Charismatic Leadership of Joseph Stalin masks deep insecurity.

Joseph Stalin

Essence of Influence: Popularity, Ruthlessness, Fear.
Key Strengths: Self-control, Intelligence, Pragmatism, Mastery of Propaganda.
Key Weaknesses: Anger, Paranoia.

The Charismatic Leadership of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)

  1. Charisma Often Masks Insecurity: One of the dangers or problems with charisma is that it often masks a deep inner sense of insecurity. This, of course, in and of itself is not bad. In fact, leaders who learn to project their best, most confident, charismatic selves, in spite of doubts or a lack of confidence, are often able to overcome their doubts, and may, over time, develop a sense of self-worth and self-respect.

    However, there is also a risk to followers. A leader with deep insecurities may act out in ways that are harmful to their followers or even society as a whole. This is very often the problem with charismatic dictators such as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. “Stalin as the Great Leader offered [the Soviet people] the reassurance they craved. The irony, of course, is that in this guise Stalin projected a perverse kind of charisma that disguised his own very real and fundamental sense of insecurity. For he, above all people, knew that the love and veneration offered up to him was for “Stalin,” the figure of longing at the center of an artificial cult…” Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion, Pg. 268.
Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle

Essence of Influence:  Leadership, Oratory.
Key Strengths: Courage, Drive, Intelligence, Grit.
Key Weaknesses: Arrogance, Stubbornness.

The Charismatic Leadership of Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)

  1. Charismatic Leaders are Often Slightly Mysterious, or Foreign: There is often something alluring about that which is slightly foreign or mysterious. Though many people are fearful or uncomfortable with that which is completely foreign or unknown, many are also bored with that which we have entirely figured out. Mix the familiar with a bit of the exotic or mysterious, however, and you have another ingredient in the formula for charismatic appeal. The charismatic French general and statesman, Charles De Gaulle, explains it himself: “First and foremost, there can be no prestige without mystery, for familiarity breeds contempt. All religions have their holy of holies, and no man is a hero to his valet. In the designs, the demeanor, and the mental operations of a leader there must always be a ‘something’ which others cannot altogether fathom, which puzzles them, stirs them, and rivets their attention…”. Some leadership scholars would argue that this, in part, helps to explain the charismatic appeal of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, as a Corsican, was a bit of an outsider to France. Likewise for Adolf Hitler, who was not originally from Germany (he was born in Austria), and Joseph Stalin who was born in Georgia (which had been annexed by the Russian Empire in 1801, and, after some back-and-forth, ultimately won their independence again).


  1. Rees, Laurence (2013). Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss. New York: Vintage. Pg. 32.


The Five Recurring Characteristics of Charismatic Leadership

After pouring over hundreds of academic journals in management, leadership, political science, and psychology, the following five characteristics emerged as the most commonly cited qualities of the charismatic leader. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but charismatic leaders on both sides (positive or negative, villainous or virtuous, etc.), from the perspective of their followers, overwhelming tend to be:

  1. Self-Confident: Self-confidence is the most commonly cited characteristic of charismatic leaders. Of course, this is not arrogance. Nor does it mean that charismatic leaders never have moments of self-doubt, or reveal subtle signs of insecurity (which can actually work to enhance charismatic appeal–so long as they are subtle not severe).
  2. Inspirational: Charismatic leaders are inspirational, not just in their public speeches, but in their everyday interactions with followers.
  3. Articulate: Charismatic leaders are also virtually always cited as articulate. They easily communicate with their followers. They are able to express themselves in a way that is quickly and easily understood. They often use metaphors and visual language so that their audience can easily picture what they are saying.
  4. Revolutionary: Charismatic leaders often stand against the status quo. Part of what makes a leader a charismatic leader is that their vision of the future addresses a current reality that followers find unacceptable.
  5. Supportive: Followers of charismatic leaders report feeling supported by the leader. Charismatic leaders use words and actions and even non-verbal communication that makes others feel acknowledged, accepted, and supported. Rather than focusing on themselves, charismatic leaders stay in the moment, focusing on the needs and interests of their audience.

Along with these five key characteristics, researchers refer to a number of other common characteristics of charismatic leaders, including goal-oriented, enthusiastic, tenacious and persuasive.

There is one other characteristic that is so central to charismatic leadership that it ought to be considered as a distinct subset of factors that makeup the charismatic bond. Virtually without exception, charismatic leaders are visionaries.

Of course, you do not have to be a visionary to be charismatic (though a driving sense of purpose is certainly part of the charismatic appeal). But you absolutely must have a compelling vision to be a charismatic leader, and to form a charismatic bond with followers. In fact, research repeatedly reveals that the charismatic leader’s vision is instrumental in fostering a charismatic relationship with followers.

Historical Overview of the Study of Charismatic Leadership

Beginning with the mythological and theological origins of the concept, this section briefly traces the history of the term charisma and the study of charismatic leadership as it takes root with Weber and begins to spread beyond the realm of religion and politics. This section will conclude with a brief overview of how the concept of charismatic leadership has been variously adapted, differentiated and even transformed (or, perhaps, diluted and distorted) in more recent times.

The Birth of  Charismatic Leadership

Charisma in Greek Mythology

The conception of charisma can be traced back to ancient Greece.813 In Greek mythology, the three daughters of Dionysus and Aphrodite, known as the Charis or the Charites (the derivation of the term charisma, which is Greek for “Graces” ), are the goddesses of charm, beauty, nature and human creativity.814 Though, as personified concepts, the Charites are said to embody these same wholesome qualities—and even “purity and altruism”817—the Charis goddesses are also often associated with Hades, the underworld, and the cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries—secret initiation ceremonies which “included promises of divine power.”815

Charisma in the New Testament

Saint Paul of Tarsus (often referred to as Paul the Apostle) also played a vital role in the early conceptualization of charisma. The Apostle Paul, who was at once a well-educated Roman citizen of the first century (who lived until circa 64 or 65 A.D.) who studied under the renowned rabbi Gamaliel818 and who was also an authority on the Greco-Roman culture and language, was one of the foremost authors of the epistles in the New Testament.819 Paul, who wrote extensively in the New Testament on the concept of grace and the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” and whose “writings come to us clothed in the Greek language,”820 adopts the term charisma (with its’ mythological origins821) to explain extraordinary and supernatural gifts of divine origin.847 Paul was also the first, in an effort to secure his own apostolic credentials, to hold up charisma as a legitimate source of authority; effectively avowing that there exists no more elevated source of holiness than the spiritual gifts of grace.823 Thus, riding on the coattails of the early Christian church and its rapid expansion in the Roman Empire, the conceptualization of charisma as a supernatural gift of grace, and the prima facie divinely legitimate source of authority, comes to full life.

The Dark Side of Charisma

Nonetheless, even bathed in the “Good News” of Christianity, the concept of charisma does not shake the early revealing allusions to a darker side found in Greek and Roman mythology. One such reference, for example, can be found in a terse comment in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1930) which states: “It may be added that in later Greek charis also had the sense of force or power. It could be a spell, or demonic force, affecting human life with supernatural influences.[emphasis added]”816

Charismatic Authority in the Church: Rule by the Holy Spirit

The importance of the topic of charisma does not surface again until the end of the 19th century with the writings of  Rudolf Sohm (1841–1917), a German jurist and member of the faculties of law at a few of Germany’s most distinguished universities, including Göttingen, Freiburg, and Leipzig.   Sohm, as a law professor of some renown (and a bit of a church historian), enters into the controversy of the authority of the early church with the publication of Kirchenrecht (Canon Law) in 1892 in which he builds on Martin Luther’s distinction between the “Two Kingdoms.”824  In Sohm’s endeavor to preserve the “invisible church” (the body of Christ) from the political powers of the state (which often infiltrate through the “law of the church” or the church as an “external institution”),825 he revives the term charisma from the heritage of Paul’s epistles and ends up advocating for a kind pneumatocracy (rule by the Spirit).826 Though Sohm hopes to safeguard what he sees as the legitimate authority of a Spirit-centered charismatic community from descending toward a legalistic institution and, in due course, devolving into what has been described as “a worldly, secular authority and organization, a second state, as it were, exercising legal control, including coercion, over its members;”827 the upshot of Sohm’s interpretation is uncertain. It may be, as Smith (1998) suggests, that Sohm further concretized a type of  authoritarian charismatic leadership which is entirely closed and impervious to the will and voice of the people.828  However, Sohm was far from the final influence over the meaning of charisma.

Charisma Takes Root: Weber as the Starting Point of Charismatic Leadership

Though the Janusian origins of the term charisma are relevant to the purpose of this research and may offer some insight into the nature of thought behind the concept and its tendency to evoke confusion and controversy in the research; it is not until the writings of Max Weber (1864-1920) that the theory of charisma becomes a more fully fledged area of theoretical and practical interest.860 Indeed, Weber is the customary starting point for those writing on the topic of charisma830 (with more than a few authors erroneously suggesting that Weber coined the term).829 Though the two men traveled in the same circle of friends and intellectuals and Weber openly credits Sohm in his work,844 Weber’s ideas and writings were in some important ways at odds with Sohm.833 Weber writes: “It is to Rudolf Sohm’s credit that he worked out the sociological character of this kind of domination; however, since he developed this category with regard to one historically important case—the rise of the ecclesiastical authority of the early Christian church—this treatment was bound to be one-sided from the viewpoint of historical diversity.”863 And though Weber’s modified conceptualizations were not universally well-received they clearly have much broader appeal.

Are there Different Types of Charismatic Leadership?

Charisma in the Research: A Theoretical Perspective on Charismatic Leadership

Democracy or Dictatorship

The concept of leadership in a democracy can be highly problematic.1 Benjamin Barber (2004), a prominent researcher of democracy and democratic institutions, writes that, “A leader strong enough to do everything we would like done for us is strong enough to deprive us of the capacity to do anything at all for ourselves.”2 Ruscio (2004), writing in The Leadership Dilemma in Modern Democracy, also captures the prevailing skepticism well:

“Suspicion of rulers, concern over their propensity to abuse power in their own self-interest, the need to hold them accountable, and the belief that legitimate power is lodged originally in the people and granted to leaders only with severe contingencies, all are fixed stars in the democratic galaxy. In many respects, democracy came about as the remedy to the problem of leadership, at least as defined by a long list of political philosophers. Fear of leadership is a basic justification for democratic forms of government.”3

Perhaps this fear is even more intense in the presence of the wildly popular and powerful charismatic leader. No doubt, the presidency of Donald Trump and the charismatic bond he has with his followers has added to the fears many hold regarding the precariousness and fragility of democracy. Fond of quoting the Mexican revolutionary leader Zapata who said, “strong leaders make a weak people;”4 Barber, is notoriously uncomfortable with leadership in a democracy.5 Barber (2003) writes: “The statesmanship of a leader such as Churchill may stultify the liberty of an admiring but passive followership no less than might the charisma of a Hitler.”6

Similarly, Gary Wills, the renowned Kennedy biographer, in his study of charismatic political leadership and American democracy writes: “we do the most damage under the Presidents we love most.”7

Arthur Schlesinger, a former adviser to President Kennedy also had a healthy skepticism of charismatic leadership in democracy. Schiffer (1973) writes:

“Schlesinger, quite articulate in this direction, has argued that in modern society there exists a practical dominance of forces, personality appeals, and policies that leaves no room whatever for charisma, because charisma is basically incapable of dealing with the realities of a democratic culture.”8

So, then, does charismatic leadership have a place in democracy? The question, though openly debated, has been far from sufficiently addressed. Nonetheless, support, however tempered, clearly exists. Even Schlesinger, paradoxically, who leaves “no room” for charisma, thought there might be a role for the charismatic leader in times of crisis.9 Moreover, there are a number of arguments put forth (including by Max Weber himself) which undeniably suggest that charismatic leadership has a critically important role in democracy.

The Two Faces of Charisma

On the question of charismatic leadership in a democracy, though many of the leading thinkers seem to come down more definitively on one side or the other, there are at least a few (myself included) who are quick to say that it very much depends on the type of charismatic leadership (an important part of the research problem this study seeks to address) or, even more to the point, that it is a matter of degree.

University of California Professor, Elizabeth Zechmeister (2006) weighs in: “Charismatic leadership in itself is not at all antithetical to democracy. However, in its extreme form, which is usually in times of crisis, and coupled with a leader who inherently has instinctive charismatic tendencies, it certainly can be somewhat dangerous.”10

Perhaps the “it depends” argument for charismatic leadership in democracy is most vivid by juxtaposing the impact that different highly charismatic leaders have had on their own governments. Here we can call to mind the different consequences of Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler or John Kennedy and Joseph Stalin. If there is merit to the psychoanalytic interpretation of charismatic leadership and the followers of charismatics are “neutral as to the content of the leader’s message or vision”11 (no matter how dastardly), then this would certainly seem to intensify the importance of further study and the potential threat that charismatic leadership may pose to an open and democratic society.

It seems, in regards to charismatic political leadership, that a healthy skepticism, a heightened awareness, and a robust understanding of the different types as well as the responsibilities of followers and of citizenship are all essential to the preservation of a free and open society.

As Arthur Schlesinger writes:

“An adequate democratic theory must recognize that democracy is not self-executing; that leadership is not the enemy of self-government but the means of making it work; that followers have their own stern obligation, which is to keep leaders within rigorous constitutional bounds; and that Caesarism is more often produced by the failure of feeble governments than by the success of energetic ones.”12
  1. Barber, Benjamin R. (2000). A Passion for Democracy: American Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pg. 95. Actual quote: “At the heart of democratic theory lies a profound dilemma that has afflicted democratic practice at least since the eighteenth century. Democracy requires both effective leadership and vigorous citizenship; yet the conditions and consequences of leadership often seem to undermine civic vigor. Although it cries out for both, democracy must customarily make do either with strong leadership or with strong citizens. For the most part, depending on devices of representation in large-scale societies, democracy in the West has settled for strong leaders and correspondingly weak citizens.”
  2. Ruscio, Kenneth P. (2004). The Leadership Dilemma in Modern Democracy. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar. Pg. 4.
  3. Ibid. Pg. ix.
  4. Barber, Benjamin R. (2003). Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pg. 238. See also: Barber, Benjamin R. (2000). A Passion for Democracy: American Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pg. 95.
  5. Ibid. Pg. 237-241.
  6. Ibid. Pg. 238.
  7. Ibid. Pg. 238.
  8. Schiffer, Irvine (1973). Charisma: A Psychoanalytic Look at Mass Society. New York: The Free Press. Pg. 5. See also: Dow Jr., Thomas E. (1969). “The Theory of Charisma.” The Sociological Inquiry. Volume 10, Number 3 (Summer 1969). Pg. 310.
  9. Schiffer, Irvine (1973). Charisma: A Psychoanalytic Look at Mass Society. New York: The Free Press. Pg. 5. Note: Treat (2004) offers a different conceptualization of charisma which, though equally “mythical,” he asserts is more congruent with democracy and egalitarianism. Treat writes: “While Schlesinger (1960) contends that charisma is a concept that invokes the “prophetic, mystical, unstable [and] irrational” as an irrelevant throw-back to the “world of myth and sorcery,” Hogan & Williams posit that “modern democratic republics might invite a different sort of charismatic leadership… no less grounded in myth and emotion than the charisma of tribal chieftains.” Source: Treat, S (2004). “The Myth of Charismatic Leadership and Fantasy Rhetoric of Crypto-Charismatic Memberships.” Doctoral Dissertation, Louisiana State University. Pg. 10-11. See Also: J. Michael Hogan and Glen Williams, “Republican Charisma and the American Revolution: The Textual Persona of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 86 (no.1, Feb 2000): 8.
  10. Zechmeister, Elizabeth (2006). ” The Consequences of Charismatic Political Leadership in Venezuela: An Interview with UC Davis Politic.” UC Davis International Affairs Journal. Volume 2, Issue 3. Tuesday, 23 May 2006.
  11. Shamir, Boas (1991). “The Charismatic Relationship: Alternative Explanations and Predictions.” Leadership Quarterly. Volume 2, Number 2. Pg. 86. Full quote: “It is also important to note that both psychoanalytic explanations are neutral as to the content of the leader’s message or vision. Followers are attached to leaders, idealize them and obey them because of what they symbolize as father figures or omnipotent figures not because of the content of their messages. To have leaders respond to and accommodate their unresolved internal conflicts, followers will do anything in the form of appeal, support and ingratiation of the leader (Kets de Vries, 1988).”
  12. Schlesinger Jr., Arthur M. (1986). The Cycles of American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Pg. 419.
Author and Speaker Dr. Johnny Welch, M.B.A.

Dr. Welch teaches a leadership course at Columbia University. His leadership development practice focuses on the strategic application of the wisdom of history. Learn More.