Saturday, August 5, 2017

Charismatic Leadership: Between Fact and Fiction

A Guest Post by Edith Luc, Ph.D.

A remark I often hear about leadership is that true leaders are inevitably charismatic. I am often bewildered such remarks, because they insinuate two misconceptions: first of all, that leadership is limited to extraordinary people, and that the group leader is entirely responsible for mobilizing his/her group around a common vision.

In an era where organizations depend more on collective intelligence than solely on the chief’s charisma, it is risky, almost utopist to wait on manifestations of a charismatic leader believed to be of unique and exceptional nature, and able to mobilize everybody at the same time. What we really need is the combination of every worker’s leadership. Can it be then, that the definition of charismatic leadership is not the same for everyone? This brings us to ask the question: What is charismatic leadership?

Charisma: A gift, an exceptional influence that a person exercises on others.

According to fundamental writings on the subject (those of Max Weber, of Holl, 1985; Sohm, 1982; see Ouedraogo, 1993), there are five fundamental characteristics that define charisma:

1.       It is a relational phenomenon;

2.      where a person exercises a strong influence on others;

3.      by means of exceptional strength or natural charm;

4.      This charisma is recognized by followers, or disciples;

5.   Finally, the charismatic leader and his/her followers share an experience that is both emotional and enthusiastic.

Charisma: A phenomenon that depends on recognition, which is what creates followers, or “disciples”.

The charismatic individual is gifted with an extraordinary power stimulated by the support of his/her immediate followers. A so-called “emotional community” is created   between the leader and his/her followers, that is , a sharing of emotions; a communal, emotionally-charged experience highlighted by admiration and enthusiasm; a quasi-invisible trust and a feeling of power.

The recognition of others:

In other words, charisma is an attribute that requires recognition in order to be manifested. This recognition is what creates a group of individuals who will obey to the call and vision of the charismatic leader. A recognition that depends on the individuals, on their emotional connection in the presence of this leader, and on the faith they have in this person. It is also important to note that the leader’s influence is not universal. That is, not everybody feels the same enthusiasm towards the individual in question.

Hitler then, was charismatic for some but not for others. In the same way, Obama is charismatic for some, but not for all. Let us take the case of Dominique Strauss Khann. Before May 14th 2011, many (but not all) described him as a charismatic leader, ready to follow him in his presidential aspirations. However, since this fatal date, Khann’s charismatic leadership has significantly evaporated due to a lack of social recognition, a lack of faith in his person and in the exemplarity of his presumed actions. This is so even though the individual’s “exceptional” talent remains the same. What has changed is the admiration manifested by his initial admirers. Therefore, there is no charisma without the eyes of admirers, of followers. Charismatic leadership then, is a volatile and impermanent attribute.

Does one need a quality similar to charisma to practice leadership? Must one have a certain influence on others?

First of all, let us remember that leadership is an influential process between individuals mobilized by a common objective. It is not at all necessary to have an exceptional gift such as charisma to exercise influence at the heart of a group. What is more, the exercise of leadership belongs to all those who want to and are able to influence the development of a situation or the resolution of a problem.

However, some specific elements are needed in order to encourage the desired impact on the group, among others:

1.       The conviction that the objective is worth the time and efforts to reach it. This conviction can bring timid people to get out of their usual path.

2.      Credibility. It comes from experience, expertise and reputation. This credibility needs to be constantly developed in relation to one’s domain of activity. It encourages the attention and interest of collaborators, while at the same time reinforces one’s personal sense of worth.

3.      Trust. Not only in yourself, but also in your decision and actions. It is the opposite of doubt and incertitude, which are sometimes necessary for self-improvement, but are harmful to leadership when chronic or unjustified.

4.      Verbal and non-verbal transmissions. These are necessary for successful communication of convictions, credibility, self-confidence, enthusiasm, as well as the belief in the chances for the objective to be achieved. Whether verbal, non-verbal, written or oral, all facets of communication are useful in the practice of leadership.

5.      The ability to valorize competencies (interests, motivations, aspirations, supports and abilities) of your collaborators, clients, suppliers and collectivities. The practice of leadership is not undergone in a closed atmosphere; rather it needs to be done in a social environment. A true leader is someone who achieves the expected results, while at the same time adapts a collaborative environment around him/herself. To achieve profit goals by alienating oneself is a characteristic of greed, not of leadership.

To conclude, one of the misconceptions of leadership is that only a few people, gifted with unique charismatic abilities, can influence and mobilize others. In reality, leadership needs to be shared and practiced everywhere and by everyone in organizations and societies. These days, enterprise executives look to be surrounded by partners that will help them solve problems and that will be able to put forward innovative solutions that go out of the beaten path.

© 2011, Edith Luc. All Rights Reserved.