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Charismatic leadership

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Charismatic leaders describe individuals who convey an inspiring vision of the future for the unit or organization as well as align their behaviour to these values. Recent research indicates, however, that charismatic leadership--often regarded as a specific facet of the broader concept of transformational leadership-is not effective in all contexts. Charismatic leadership, for example, is not as effective when individuals feel a sense of belonging to their organization.

Conger and Kanungo (1988, 1998) developed a theory of charismatic leadership, which delineates the three main stages of this leadership process as well as key behaviors. During the first stage, the leaders determine the possibilities and opportunities that could be explored. Specifically, these leaders consider the opportunities and constraints in the environment as well as the needs and preferences of members of their workgroup. During the second stage, charismatic leaders promulgate an inspiring vision to accommodate these opportunities and preferences. Finally, during the third stage, charismatic leaders implement this vision, motivating followers to pursue these objectives. In particular, these leaders engage in personal risk, partly to inspire followers through role modeling, as well as demonstrate unconventional behavior.

When leaders are charismatic, the profitability of organizations tends to improve (for a review, see Den Hartog, De Hoogh, & Keegan, 2007;; Fuller, Patterson, Hester, & Stringer, 1996). Furthermore, the attitudes and behaviour of employees improves. They feel more committed to the organization and behave more cooperatively (see Den Hartog, De Hoogh, & Keegan, 2007;; for further information, see The CIP model of leadership).

Factors that moderate the benefits of charismatic leadership


Charismatic leadership is especially effective after accidents at work, particularly if individuals reflect upon their own mortality. One study, for example, showed that individuals are more inclined to prefer charismatic leaders-leaders who promulgated and pursued an inspiring vision of the future-than other managers after they imagine their death (Cohen, Solomon, Maxfield, Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2004). For example, these individuals are less inclined to like leaders who strive to seek and integrate the opinion of all employees and managers.


Similarly, charismatic leaders are more likely to improve employee attitudes and productivity when individuals feel a sense of uncertainty and fragility, such as when the market is very competitive, government regulations change frequently, and these leaders own the business. When leaders promote in inspiring vision of the future--a set of values and objectives that individuals will pursue--these employees feel more connected to each other, which alleviates their sense of fragility (de Hoogh et al., 2004).

In addition to charismatic leadership, other traditional styles, such as transactional leadership, are also more beneficial when the environment is uncertain. This argument was tested by Waldman, Ramirez, House and Puranam (2001). This study assessed the perceptions of senior managers from 48 of the Fortune 500 firms. Leadership style, workplace profitability, and environmental uncertainty were all assessed.

When the environment was uncertain, the positive association between charismatic leadership and profitability was amplified. Likewise, an uncertain environment also generated a stronger positive association between transactional leadership, in which leaders offer incentives or dispense penalties to reinforce suitable behavior, and profitability. Thus, during uncertain times, both charismatic leadership and transaction leadership might be constructive (Waldman, Ramirez, House & Puranam, 2001).

These findings align with arguments that Crossan, Vera, and Nanjad (2008) proposed. According to these researchers, charismatic leaders can allude to broader values and emotive opportunities that instil a compelling and enduring sense of direction and confidence, curbing uncertainty, and alleviating anxiety. Nevertheless, these leaders do not always depict the precise tasks and activities that individuals need to undertake, sometimes amplifying uncertainty. Transactional behaviors, when coupled with a charismatic vision, can overcome this limitation (for a similar perspective, see Jansen, Vera, & Crossan, 2009.

Need to belong

Likewise, charismatic leadership is more likely to promote cooperation and compliance when employees do not feel a sense of belonging to their organization. When individuals feel isolated from colleagues, and not connected, they are more likely to act cooperatively, as well as more inclined to follow regulations, when leaders are charismatic (Den Hartog, De Hoogh, & Keegan, 2007).

When charismatic leadership is suitable, managers should attempt to publicize a broad strategy, direction, and values for the future. In contrast, when the work environment is more stable, leaders should also support the individual needs and goals of each employee separately.

Measures of charismatic leadership

Several measures of charismatic leadership have been formulated. The Conger-Kanungo Scale of Charismatic Leadership is one of the most popular (for more information, see Measures of leadership style).

Theoretical explanations

Several explanations have been proposed to explain the benefits and limitations of charismatic leadership. For example, because charismatic leaders promulgate a collective vision--a direction that all employees can pursue--these individuals are more inclined to experience a sense of connection to the unit or organization (Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993).

Determinants of charismatic leadership

Speech content

When the language of leaders is vivid and emotional, they are more likely to be perceived as charismatic. Specifically, leaders who highlight sensory details as well as emotional experiences in their speeches are regarded as charismatic. Examples of words that represent such sensory and emotional sensations are vigor, impels, values, spirit, tearfully, and so forth.

This proposition was substantiated by Naidoo and Lord (2008). In their study, participants heard one of two speeches. One of the speeches included many vivid, emotional terms. The other speech was identical, except the vivid, emotional terms were replaced with more abstract, conceptual words.

The individuals who heard the speech with vivid imagery were subsequently more likely to report positive affect than were the other participants. In addition, these individuals were more likely to assume the leader was charismatic if vivid imagery was presented. Hence, both positive affect and imagery during speeches represent antecedents to charisma.

Delivery style

One study, conducted by Clark and Greatbatch (2011), examined the features of speeches that increase the likelihood that a person will be perceived as charismatic. Participants watched 16 speeches that were delivered by seven influential management consultants: Kenneth Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Daniel Goleman, Gary Hamel, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Tom Peters and Peter Senge. Each speech lasted between four and nine minutes. Specifically, 98 managers, with an average age of 34, evaluated these speeches. That is, after watching each clip, participants rated the extent to which the speaker seemed charismatic on a 10 point scale from non-charismatic to incredibly charismatic. The participants also justified these evaluations of charisma.

Next, the researchers distilled various features of the speeches. The speeches comprised approximately 3400 sentences in total, each of which was subjected to a content analysis but only some of which comprised substantive assertions, called focal sentences. For example, researchers identified whether or not the sentences or speeches comprised any of seven rhetorical devices, such as:

In addition to these rhetorical devices, other features were identified. For example, whether or not the speech refers to personal or collective pronouns, such as I, me, we, our, or us, were included. Whether or not sentences referred to individuals, events, industries, countries, or the world in general was assessed, representing the level of abstraction or generalization. Finally, the style of delivery was also measured. In particular, whether the speaker was gazing at the audience, changed their volume, pitch, or speed, and exhibited facial, hand, or body gestures, such as closing their eyes, was assesssed.

Overall, the style of delivery was especially likely to differentiate charismatic and non-charismatic speeches. Charismatic speakers varied their volume, pitch, and rate more often, stressing particular sentences more frequently. In addition, for the more substantive sentences, the rhetorical devices also enhanced perceived charisma.

Implications of charismatic leadership

Ashour (2009) analyzed the processes that preceded the de-radicalization of seven Islamist organizations. Three of these organizations were Egyptian: the Muslim Brothers, the Islamic Group in Egypt, and the al-Jihad Organization. Four of these organizations were Algerian: the Islamic Salvation Army or AIS, the Islamic Armed Group or GIA, the Salafic Group for Preaching and Combat or GSPC, and the Al Qu'ida in the Islamic Countries of al-Magreb. Content analyses and interviews of these cases were conducted to uncover the factors that differentiate the successful and unsuccessful attempts to reverse the radicalization of these organizations. Personal, media, and archival interviews were conducted with leaders, commanders, specialists, members, officials, and intelligence officers.

According to Ashour, charismatic leadership was an integral precursor of de-radicalization in these organizations. To curb violence in these organizations, several features of this form of leadership were especially important. First, to ensure they were perceived as legitimate and substantive, only spiritual or religious leaders were effective. Other leaders of the organization could not curb radicalization. Second, if these spiritual or religious leaders were senior members of the organization, they were especially effective, as in the case of al-Sharif in the al-Jihad Organization. Nevertheless, spiritual or religious leaders outside the organization can still effect some change. Third, leaders who were not connected to specific factions were also more influential. Fourth, leaders who have been involved in previous struggles were perceived as more credible and, thus, were more likely to initiative de-radicalization. Finally, these leaders were usually effective only after they were granted opportunities to debate their position with many followers, as exemplified in the Islamic Group.

Without these charismatic leaders, attempts to curb violence in these organizations are often stalled. Specifically, if leaders are not able to promulgate a shared vision, conflict between factions often escalates. Splinter groups emerge, some of which become especially extreme and violent. Indeed, attempts of the Islamic Armed Group in the late 1990s to de-radicalize, without the support of leadership, were unsuccessful.

Accordingly, when governments attempt to encourage members to relinquish violence, circumventing the leaders of these organizations, the initiatives tend to founder. For example, Nasser offered inducements to members of the Muslim Brothers to declare allegiance to the government. This offer did not curb violence, however. In contrast, when the Zeroual regime, in Algeria, negotiated directly with leaders of the Islamic Salvation Army during 1997 and 2000, de-radicalization did eventuate.

Similarly, attempts to facilitate interactions between these Islamist organizations and other social collectives are effective only if these charismatic leaders are also involved. To illustrate, debates between the Muslim Brothers or Islamic Group members and Islamists who did not espouse violence did not foster de-radicalization across these organizations because leaders did not participate. Instead, only circumscribed factions exhibited the signs of de-radicalization.

Dependence on leaders

When the leaders are charismatic, their followers become more inclined to depend on these leaders. That is, they rely on these leaders to set goals, impart information, cultivate a strong team spirit, plan work, manage conflicts, solve problems, and complete many other activities. This pattern of observations is especially pronounced when these charismatic leaders also invite employees to participate in decision making. This reliance on charismatic leaders can be destructive& employees may follow corrupt or unsuitable leaders unconditionally rather than challenge existing practices.

This possibility was discovered by de Vries, Pathak, and Paquin (2012). In their study, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel the CEO is needed to set goals, coordinate work, and so forth, on a five point scale--a measure that gauges need for leadership. In addition, these individuals rated the degree to which this CEO exhibits the hallmarks of charismatic leadership as well as participative leadership, epitomized by items such as "Allows subordinates to have influence on critical decisions". Charismatic leadership was positively associated with need for leadership, especially when participative leadership was high.

Presumably, when a leader is charismatic, individuals may relinquish their need to control events to this leader. They will, therefore, want this leader to assume many responsibilities. When the leader also invites participation, individuals know their activities or practices could change in the future. They experience some uncertainty. They become even more motivated to depend on this charismatic leader to assume control and to override their uncertainty.

Related leadership styles

Charismatic leadership is now sometimes contrasted with two other styles: ideological leadership and pragmatic leadership. For more information about these styles, see The CIP model of leadership).

Goal focused leadership

Goal focused leaders clarify the roles and priorities of employees as well as demonstrate how these responsibilities align to the broader strategy and direction of the organization. Colbert and Witt (2009) applied trait activation theory to predict the conditions under which this form of leadership is especially effective.

From the perspective of trait activation theory (Tett & Burnett, 2003;; Tett & Guterman, 2000), excellent leaders activate the expression of desirable personality traits in followers. That is, these leaders cultivate the conditions that enable individuals to express their most desirable personality traits.

Colbert and Witt (2009), for example, showed that a specific style of leadership, they designated as goal focused, facilitates the expression of conscientiousness. In particular, Colbert and Witt (2009) participants answered a series of five items that represent the extent to which their manager provides this goal-focused leadership. These items gauged the extent to which their supervisor provided direction, defined priorities, clarified roles, formulated plans, and pursued these intentions. In addition, they responded to a series of questions, intended to characterize the degree to which they are conscientious.

Furthermore, their supervisors evaluated the performance of these participants on seven items, such as quantity of work, quality of work, creativity, independence, and learning. Conscientiousness was positively related to job performance, but only when supervisors demonstrated goal-focused leadership. Only these leaders enabled individuals to translate their conscientious inclinations to tangible improvements in performance.

Goal-focused leadership can also affect the priority of goals. Specifically, in every organization, employees must pursue a host of goals-to satisfy customers, to uncover novel solutions, to work rapidly, and so forth. Sometimes, the priorities of employees match the priorities of managers and other key stakeholders, a form of congruence that improves the coordination of activities and the performance of organizations.

This congruence was more prevalent when employees were conscientious, especially if the supervisors engaged in goal-focused leadership. In particular, goal-focused leaders usually demonstrate how the activities of a specific workgroup or department align to the broader objectives of the organization, which clarifies and unifies these priorities. Conscientious individuals are especially likely to heed this information, because they are sensitive to information about goals and targets.

Studies have yet to examine the association between goal focused leaders and styles that seem similar, such as initiating structure and transactional leadership. Nevertheless, Colbert and Witt (2009), argued the utility of these styles might differ from one another. Goal focused leaders were effective when employees were conscientiousness. In contrast, transaction leaders, who offer incentives to motivate followers, might be effective when employees are not conscientious. That is, these incentives might resonate with employees who are driven by tangible rewards rather than abstract goals.

In Extremis leadership

In Extremis Leadership (IEL) represents the tendency of some leaders to instill a sense of purpose and direction as well as motivation to followers who experience a sense of imminent danger (Kolditz & Brazil, 2005). In these threatening situations, leaders cannot merely apply standardized rules and procedures but must respond immediately to the unique characteristics of the setting (Kolditz, 2007;; Marshall, 1947).

In Extremis Leadership differs from crisis leadership (Kolditz, 2007). That is, crisis leadership represents the need to respond to unforeseen circumstances. In contrast, In Extremis Leadership can pertain to leadership in response to more regular threats, as experienced in military, police, emergency health, and rescue domains, for example. In Extremis Leadership does not merely involve a response to the immediate crisis, but the promulgation of vision and courage (Kolenda 2001).

Implementation of the vision

Transformational leaders often promulgate an inspiring vision of the future. Yet, in many circumstances, this vision is not integrated into the daily work of all individuals and, therefore, does not enhance work satisfaction, commitment, or performance.

Kohles, Bligh, and Carsten (2012) developed a model that highlights the measures that can be introduced to prevent this problem. According to their model, managers and subordinates need to engage in bidirectional conversations about how to integrate the vision into their daily activities. The managers can offer suggestions on how individuals can change their tasks and activities to align with the vision. The subordinates, however, also should be granted opportunities to discuss how they can shift their tasks and activities to align with the vision. As a consequence of these bidirectional conversations, subordinates should be more likely to integrate the vision into their work, ultimately enhancing job satisfaction, commitment, and performance.

Kohles, Bligh, and Carsten (2012) conducted a study that verifies this model. The participants were 1425 employees within a health maintenance organization or HMO. They completed measures of bidirectional communication, including items such as "My immediate supervisor initiates conversation with me about aligning my work behaviors and decisions with the company's vision" and "I suggest ideas to my immediate supervisor concerning how the company's vision can be used to guide my work behaviors and decisions". The also completed a measure that gauges the degree to which the vision is integrated into the daily tasks of individuals (e.g., "The vision serves as a 'mental guideline' for how to do my job"). Finally, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and performance, as gauged by supervisors, were included in the model as well.

As hypothesized, bidirectional conversation was positively associated with job satisfaction, commitment, and performance. These relationships were mediated by integration of the vision into daily tasks. Consequently, unless the managers and subordinates converse about how to institute the inspiring vision of a charismatic leader, this vision will not be instituted.


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Last Update: 6/8/2016