Saturday, August 5, 2017

Charismatic Leadership: A Reply

I am particularly taken by the following passage from Edith Luc’s essay on charismatic leadership: “(I)t 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.” I am reminded of the emphasis that American corporations place on the CEO position and the U.S. Government places on the U.S. President. The focus on one person, rather than a council, presumes that certain individuals are so unique and exceptional that perhaps even human nature itself is surmounted. In other words, the theory behind charismatic leadership may imply such extraordinary differences within human nature that some people are essentially super-human, and thus subject to hero-worship.

Charisma, which comes from charismata, literally means “gifts of the spirit”—implying that a person with charisma has something special bestowed by God. Hero-worship may thus be part and parcel of charismatic leadership. While such worship may be viewed as innocuous when Barak Obama is the beneficiary, Edith Luc reminds us that Hitler, too, was regarded as a charismatic leader. The film Triumph of the Will shows that he was worshiped by many Germans and even Hitler himself presumed his survival of assassination attempts was a sign that God approved of his mission 

In short, it can be dangerous to get carried away with one-person leadership manifested with charisma. The one-person approach itself may encourage or invite this danger wherein a suspension of critical belief accompanies an exaggerated focus on a particular leader’s person such that a charismatic leader can even get away with mass murder. Hence, it might be useful to re-evaluate the assumptions behind charismatic leadership and consider the viability of alternative types of leadership.

If human nature is not as wide-ranging from ordinary to exceptional as charismatic leadership theory requires or supposes, then even the emphasis on a single individual in an organization or government may be artificial and excessive. Implications from a more egalitarian approach to leadership include substituting councils for individual top leaders. In the U.S. Constitutional Convention, for example, delegates debated a presidential council as an alternative to a one-person office. With the revolutionary war not long in the past, the delegates decided for the latter because of the energy required of the commander in chief. In a world wherein the default for leadership is “one-person,” the shift to the council alternative can seem radical. This over-reaction to such a change may attest to the addictive properties involved in the recognition of charismatic leadership, rather than to any “radicalness.” Therefore, it might be useful to consider alternatives to charismatic leadership within the one-person approach.

Within the one-person leadership tradition, implications from begging off of charismatic leadership include re-evaluating the pay differential between the workers and the CEO of a given company and reducing the duration of the presidential election campaign (which is now almost two years—half of a term). In other words, if charismatic leadership tends to exaggerate the unique and exceptional characteristics of leaders of organizations and governments, then the rest of us should pay less attention (and money) to the individuals who rule our organizations and governments.

Even though the one-person leadership arrangement that supports charismatic leadership may be over-extended in modern society, the notion of a collective intelligence strikes me as anthropomorphic, as intelligence is a quality of a mind rather than an organization. Relatedly, treating a society or organization as an alternative to a charismatic leader may be faulty—meaning going too far in the other direction. Treating everyone as “participating” in leadership risks making leadership itself a tautology; everybody does it. Also, if everyone is simultaneously a leader and follower, the terms may lose their respective meanings on the way to a muddle. The recognition that is required for charismatic leadership does not in my view render the followers leaders; the leader’s leadership is not usurped and thus democratized to the whole. I am not suggesting that Edith Luc goes so far as to assert these claims, but someone could reach them from the notion of collective intelligence, which she does assert and I deny.

Perhaps the notion of collective intelligence comes from small group dynamics wherein a discussion gains momentum and results in a conclusion. I would argue that such a process is a function of exchanges of information between discrete intelligences (i.e., minds). With regard to charismatic leadership, I believe the recognition depends on the leader being of a sufficiently large organization (or government). At close range, such as in a group, a leader cannot seem “larger than life” and thus is not apt to seem unique and extraordinary. In other words, some distance is necessary for the illusion of a charismatic leader’s “superhuman” quality to be apparent. “No one is a prophet in his or her hometown” may be getting at this point. So I submit that charismatic leadership does not apply to the group or department level, but, rather, to upper echelon leadership in an organization or government (and even then, to a sufficiently large one).


Edith Luc, “Charismatic Leadership: Between Fact and Fiction

Related:  See The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.