Charisma and Charismatic Leaders:
Wisdom and Insights from the Heroes and 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.”
(See On Charisma and Institution Building)
Key Strengths: Courage, ambition, intelligence.
On the Charisma of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 stops 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.“
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.
Key Strengths: Perseverance, Courage, Audacity.
On the Charisma of Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
- 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
Essence of Influence: Popularity, Contagious energy, Vision.
Key Strengths: Intelligence, Will, Courage, Grit, Work Ethic.
On the Charisma of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
- 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.
Key Strengths: Self-control, Intelligence, Pragmatism, Mastery of Propaganda.
Key Weaknesses: Anger, Paranoia.
On the Charisma of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)
- 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
Essence of Influence: Leadership, Oratory.
Key Strengths: Courage, Drive, Intelligence, Grit.
Key Weaknesses: Arrogance, Stubbornness.
On the Charisma of Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)
- 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).
- Rees, Laurence (2013). Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss. New York: Vintage. Pg. 32.
The Five 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:
Charismatic leaders are inspirational, not just in their public speeches, but in their everyday interactions with followers.
Charismatic leaders are also often 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.
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.
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.