Charismatic Leaders: Wisdom and Insights on Charismatic Leadership from the Heroes and Villains of History

John F. Kennedy as a Charismatic Leader Inspirational

“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, German political economist and sociologist who popularized the term charisma
(See On Charisma and Institution Building)

Napoleon Bonaparte

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

On the Charisma of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

  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 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.
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.

Winston Churchill British Prime Minister

Winston Churchill

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

On the Charisma 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.
The Charisma of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

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

On the Charisma 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.
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.

On the Charisma 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.

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:

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).

Inspirational

Charismatic leaders are inspirational, not just in their public speeches, but in their everyday interactions with followers.

Articulate

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.

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.

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.