Reflections on Charismatic Leadership
Charismatic leaders excel in their ability to formulate and articulate an inspirational vision, and by behaviors and actions signal to followers that they—and by inference their mission—are extraordinary. Individuals choose to follow charismatic leaders, not primarily because of any formal authority the leader may have, but because of perceptions of extraordinariness. Charismatic leaders make their followers part of something larger than themselves. In marketing, this idea is used in “purpose branding”—how a brand can change the world for the better. The role of purpose branding is to unite the firm’s employees and brand customers in the pursuit of that higher vision. Take ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry’s. It has benefited enormously from employees and consumers acting as brand ambassadors, who rave on social media about the brand’s advocacy of social causes. Incidentally, this also made Ben & Jerry’s one of the world’s best-selling ice-cream brands.
Management scholars Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo introduced a framework for charismatic leadership, which I use to reflect on the case studies of Alexander the Great and General Charles de Gaulle. Based on their work, I identify five key components of effective charismatic leadership: (1) great desire to change the status quo; (2) define and communicate an idealized vision, which is highly discrepant from the status quo; (3) show exemplary acts of great personal risk and sacrifice; (4) create a deep emotional bond with followers; and (5) mind your lifespan.
Great desire to change the status quo
Charismatic leaders are essentially opposed to the status quo and strive to change it. They share this characteristic with disruptive leaders. The difference is that the locus of power for disruptive leadership is usually institutional (based on coercion, rewards, or one’s position in the organization), while the main source of power of charismatic leaders is the person’s qualities (referent power). According to German sociologist Max Weber, who introduced the concept of charismatic leadership, “Men do not obey [the charismatic leader] by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him.”
Alexander the Great and de Gaulle both exhibited a great desire to change the status quo. Alexander was not satisfied with merely being king of Macedon, or even king of the western part of the Persian Empire. He also was not satisfied with the “normal” role of being the victor that lords over the defeated. De Gaulle refused to accept the “new world order” imposed by Nazi Germany and accepted by the legitimate French government in 1940. He was also unwilling to accept the Fourth Republic—which was essentially a continuation of the ineffective Third Republic—or the situation in Algeria.
Define and communicate the discrepant, idealized vision
Leadership author John Kotter identifies the creation of a vision for change and communication of the change vision as the third and fourth steps in his model for effective change management. Charismatic leaders excel in the ability to formulate a new, idealized vision, which is highly discrepant from the status quo, and is attainable only because of the exceptional qualities of the leader. Alexander’s vision of a world empire, governed jointly by the Macedonians and the Persians, was totally new to the world. De Gaulle’s vision of France, free and restored to its former grandeur, was highly discrepant from its actual situation in World War II, and later again in the late 1950s. In 1946, people did not want to follow his vision, and he resigned, waiting in the wings until he was needed again.
Ingvar Kamprad, the charismatic founder of Ikea, built the company on a highly discrepant, idealized vision, laid out in his “Testament of a Furniture Retailer.” In this document, he contrasted his vision with the prevailing industry practice of marketing high-priced furniture that was out of reach of most people. His vision was—
To create a better everyday life for the many people by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them. We have decided once and for all to side with the many. . . . In our line of business, far too many of the fine designs and new ideas are reserved for a small circle of the affluent. That situation has influenced the formulation of our objectives . . . we will be able to make a valuable contribution to the process of democratisation.
It is not enough if charismatic leaders are able to define a new vision; they should also be able to communicate their vision in an inspirational manner to the mass of their followers. Inspirational communication builds the necessary emotional bonds with followers that give charismatic leadership its unique strength. From the ancient sources, a picture emerges of Alexander as a highly inspirational communicator, able to articulate his vision, and accessible to every Macedonian soldier. De Gaulle was a supremely effective (verbal and nonverbal) communicator of his ideas, who used the media to connect with the French people.
Show exemplary acts of great personal risk and sacrifice
Charismatic leaders engage in exemplary acts that involve great personal risk and sacrifice. They do not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. This behavior inspires and emotionally arouses their followers. It shows their sincerity and binds their followers more strongly to them. Ideally, stories about their risk and sacrifice lead to myths.
Alexander the Great never asked his soldiers to do something he did not do himself. He was wounded eight times, and in all four major battles he personally led the cavalry charge, at obvious great personal risk. One celebrated instance of sacrifice occurred when Alexander led part of the army through the Gedrosian desert (present-day Baluchistan in Pakistan). The army suffered terribly because of lack of water. When some soldiers found some water, they offered it to Alexander in a helmet (by itself telling, that they did not drink it themselves). He praised them but poured the water into the sand. He would not drink if his men could not drink. Alexander lived on in countless legends, told in Europe and Asia, about fantastic journeys and romantic adventures.
De Gaulle gave up a comfortable life for the sake of his vision. He was sentenced to death by the Vichy regime, and he survived more than thirty (!) assassination attempts. Like Alexander, he did not claim privileges that others did not have. He was incorruptible. After he resigned in 1946, he refused to use his position to acquire additional food ration coupons and supplies were sometimes tight. The de Gaulles even paid the telephone and electricity bills for their apartment in the Élysée Palace. When their grandchildren were unable to go on a winter sports holiday because they could get no seats on the train, de Gaulle refused to pull rank. When he passed away in 1970, he left behind a very modest inheritance. Such behaviors stand in sharp contrast to the entitlement behaviors we can witness in some of today’s business and political leaders.
Create deep emotional bond with your followers
Ultimately, the power of charismatic leaders does not reside in their institutional position but in the hearts of their followers. Alexander the Great had a close bond not only with his officers but also with the common soldiers. They followed him because they loved him. De Gaulle, too, excelled in creating an emotional bond with his followers. But he did it in a different way. While Alexander was accessible to even the lowest soldier, de Gaulle was top-down, through myth making and dramatic television appearances.
Oprah Winfrey is a very successful and charismatic businesswoman. Her devoted followers describe her as inspirational, brilliant, but also highly personable. She is considered a sister by many of her employees, who are willing to work long hours because of their love for her.
Mind your lifespan
Charismatic leaders engage in innovative behaviors that run counter to the established norms of their organizations, industries, and/or societies. Their plans and strategies to achieve change, their exemplary acts of heroism involving personal risks, and their self-sacrificing behaviors must be novel, unconventional, and out of the ordinary. This has two important implications.
First, the potential for charismatic leadership is greatest when the organization—or society—experiences significant tribulation; think about a corporate bankruptcy or national crisis. In Alexander’s time, Greece was impoverished and in desperate need of conquest to alleviate this condition. De Gaulle’s France faced two existential crises: defeat by Germany and the Algerian War.
Second, charismatic leadership is essentially unstable and transitory. Once the new order is institutionalized, charisma fades because the need for radical change has disappeared. This creates a problem when the charismatic leader does not (want to) perceive this, and rather views themselves as indispensable and the only one in whose hands the organization’s (or country’s) destiny can be trusted. It is possible that the mutiny at Opis was an indication that Alexander’s charisma was slipping away, although how he handled this—and the response of his soldiers—casts doubt on this idea. We will never know, as he died soon thereafter. Yet, there is little doubt that Alexander’s reputation benefited greatly from his early death.
De Gaulle lived much longer and his case illustrates that the lifespan of charismatic leadership is finite. Gradually, as the 1960s progressed, and memories of the instability of the Fourth Republic and the Algerian War faded away, the French grew tired of de Gaulle and his antics and authoritarian behavior, which they did not object to when they were in dire need. He increasingly lost the connection with his followers, and in the end, he was more or less forced to resign.
Carlos Ghosn, the once-hallowed boss of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, started out as the savior of Nissan, whose employees were mesmerized by his charisma. Ghosn’s drive inspired those around him who had lost faith in the viability of the company. Initially, his leadership style was open and transparent, and he was an excellent listener. Over time, and especially after he was also appointed CEO of Renault, he became increasingly autocratic. According to insiders, there emerged a personality cult around him. He became a business leader whose long years at the top had made it difficult to tell where his dreams for his companies ended and his personal ambitions began. In November 2018, he was ousted and arrested, accused of financial misconduct. On December 29, 2019, he escaped his house arrest and fled to his native Lebanon. His mistake was to ignore the advice he had given himself when talking to investors in the early 2000s: that every CEO should step down within five years.
For more information see Time to Lead: Lessons for Today’s Leaders from Bold Decisions that Changed History.
Photo Credit: Mathias Jensen.