Charisma and Transformational Leadership Revisited

Statue of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. The ...

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The ancient concept of the charismatic leader remains in everyday use. It was explained by Weber, and partly modernised as transformational leadership, but the older idea retains much of its potency

In 2004-5 while writing Dilemmas of Leadership, co-author Murray Clark and I had many discussions about the old idea of charisma, and the modern concept of transformational leadership. It was clear that the style of the transformational leader had some similarities with that of the charismatic leader described for at least two millennia.

The Taming of Charisma

We suggested that the newer concept had ‘tamed’ charisma. By that we meant that charisma in its pre-modern form had too much that was mystical about it. The twentieth century was a period in which such older ideas were being swept aside by advances in the newer branches of knowledge such as psychology and sociology.

Bernard Bass had influenced thinking about leadership, moving attention away from the difficult question of what a leader is, to the more scientifically amenable question of what a leader is observed to do. Maybe, we suggested, the idea of transformational leadership was not so much a radical move forward in thinking, but an attempt to bring charisma up to date by stripping it of its mystique, replacing that with the rationality accompanying a factorial analysis.

Elements of the Old Remained

Elements of charisma could be detected in the new formulation. For example, the objectified factor of idealized influence of the transformational leader was acknowledged as an aspect of charismatic leadership, as was inspirational motivation. And the factor of individualised consideration might be seen as a ‘taming’ of the more mystical skills of a charismatic leader at makingleaving  each follower feel  special and uniquely valued.

One of the pioneers of transformational leadership, James MacGregor Burns, drew on his study of President Kennedy. But Kennedy is also frequently as a charismatic leader. In the run up to his election as President, the same labelling was being applied to Barack Obama.

Charisma and Its Redress

In the first edition of Dilemmas we entitled the relevant chapter ‘Charisma and its Redress.’ The reference is to the work of Seamas Heaney and his book, The Redress of Poetry. In it, he explains that poetry always compensates for popular unthinking opinion. The redress of poetry is its power to challenge conventional beliefs. We were suggesting that transformational leadership offered a redress, a compensation for the age-old assumptions about the magical nature of charisma. Of course, Weber had got there before us, and with far a richer analysis of charisma. He had seen charisma as becoming less suited to modern organisational structures and their leadership. 

Charismatic Leadership

Since the first edition of Dilemmas, there have been further contributions to our understanding of charismatic leadership.  John Potts wrote a particularly thoughtful study from a historical perspective. There is plenty of scope for further reflection. Our earlier suggestion followed Burns and pointed to the dilemma of empowerment associated with charisma. We noted “we are left with the impression that Burns now feels that such a view of leadership and power is inadequate for dealing with the dilemmas posed by transformational leadership. [ DOL, pp91, 93]. ”

Revisiting the Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership

It seems to me now that charisma, far from being tamed by the more modern notion of transformational leadership, is co-existing very nicely with it. Despite attempts to welcome in a post-charismatic era, it fits nicely with popular conceptions of the specialness of such figures as Obama, and sporting leaders such as Jose Mourinho, and of course the still-potent idealisation of Nelson Mandela (witness the retelling in the book and film Invictus).

Work in Progress

My own work in progress is taking a closer look at the style of these charismatic leaders and how it deals with a dilemma of retaining specialness while conveying the impression of being one of and at one with the tribe. From such a perspective, we begin to see another dilemma of being isolated from (protected from?) information that might require a more rational relationship with the technical over the symbolic aspects of leadership.

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14 Responses to Charisma and Transformational Leadership Revisited

  1. I am not sure a charismatic style and a transformational style always go together. I see charisma as a leadership personality type that inspires people to follow him/her, but transformation is essentially about a leader’s approach to change. A BCG type matrix of personality style and creative style might suggest 4 different leadership approaches. Obama it seems to me has great public speaking skills and a transformational style, but he does not have Clinton’s level of charisma.

  2. Tudor says:

    Hi (is that the A.C. formerly at MBS?).

    Don’t disagree, charisma and transformational leadership do not always go together.

    Trouble is, finding agreement what everyone means by the terms.

    Transformational was introduced as a process through people were transformed and through this more complex social groups were transformed. So the style ‘works’ by elevating individuals beyond self-interest.

    Doesn’t mean to say you can’t have a ‘2 by 2’ matrix which might have some shared face validity. There is still plenty of space for debate if my students are a guide. No clear agreement about charismatic style.

    Best wishes

  3. Luciano Teixeira says:

    Hello!

    For principle, i believe that charismatic and tranformational leadership should walk together. Of course that in real world this doesn´t works as we hope.

    Instead of different “schools of thinking” we should see at this point different “ways of acting”.

    In fact, there is an empty hole about global leadership because we are looking for transformational leaders and just thinking about developing leadership but in fact what we need are born leaders.

    And thats not an old fashion idea in despite of the leadership eras.

    But we need born leaders with transformational dreams! With transcendental dreams!

    Mandela is one of that.

    We shouldn´t forget that charismatic Leaders move people beyond paradigms. In their traits some kind of power involves followers to achieve to much than they expect.

    This kind of leadership can disrupt the actual status quo for a new time of development. The world will be thankfull for this.

    We don´t need cost cut, we need boldness and creativity to raise profitability. We don´t need humble followers, we need empowered leaders.

    I think we need traits.

    From this reasoning we can think that YES, the charismatic leaders are coming up again.

  4. Luciano Teixeira says:

    Hello!

    For principle, i believe that charismatic and tranformational leadership should walk together. Of course that in real world this doesn´t works as we hope.

    Instead of different “schools of thinking” we should see at this point different “ways of acting”.

    In fact, there is an empty hole about global leadership because we are looking for transformational leaders and just thinking about developing leadership but in fact what we need are born leaders.

    And thats not an old fashion idea in despite of the leadership eras.

    But we need born leaders with transformational dreams! With transcendental dreams!

    Mandela is one of that.

    We shouldn´t forget that charismatic Leaders move people beyond paradigms. In their traits some kind of power involves followers to achieve to much than they expect.

    This kind of leadership can disrupt the actual status quo for a new time of development. The world will be thankfull for this.

    We don´t need cost cut, we need boldness and creativity to raise profitability. We don´t need humble followers, we need empowered leaders.

    I think we need traits.

    From this reasoning we can think that YES, the charismatic leaders are coming up again.

    Best wishes

  5. Tudor says:

    Hi Luciano

    I like your commitment to the potential of charismatic leaders. I agree that we have not seen the decline of the charismatic leader But there are several points ou raise which I would want to discuss further.

    Because of the power of charismatics over followers, they can be fources for evil as wll as good.

    Charsima may also be at least in part enhanced, just as a gifted person can improve through tutorship and training. Maybe charismatics are not simply ‘born’ to be leaders?

  6. Luciano says:

    Hi Tudor

    I know about the careful we must have when we make connections between humans and other species, so please sorry for my eventual mistakes on this.

    Let´s think about the “Alpha Dog”. We can teach it, train it and after all, probably it will mantain the leadership on the pack. This is beacuse it´s born to lead.

    For me, at this point, this is like charismatics. I agree about good or evil inclination depending on past “maps” they made. I also agree with empower them with tutorship and training to a thinking of transformational leadership.

    But can we choice good or evil without an ethical conflict? Should we just observe the inclination manifest it self? This kind of interference will be accepted by a charismatic leader?

    On this way, shall we will see a new kind of transcendental-charismatic leaders? With a leadership thinking that will go beyond transformational?

    Maybe are we talking about “Level Six Leadership”?

    Best Wishes

  7. Tudor says:

    You are thinking deeply. The top-dog point is an important one, and was part of a theory by the so-called Social Darwinists. The difficulty comes if, like yourself, you want to bring ethics or morals into the discussions. Nature has its own kind of morality called the survival of the fittest. Would you agreed that humans have evolved a capability to transcend that morality?

  8. Gilberto Scislewski Filho says:

    Dear Tudor and Luciano,
    it is a pleasure to enter this discussion.

    I understand the comparison must be done when talking at the level of instinct. In my opinion, the humans transcended morality and also aquired the commitment to themselves(I know it can shock!). But the more we think about leaders, the less we find commited people to help oneanother. The charismatic leader must be incentivated so that he can overpass the social barriers and make himself transformational and creative as well. without the creative side the good willing does not survive the money and influence power among the environment.

  9. Tudor says:

    Dear Gilberto.

    When you say “The charismatic leader must be incentivated” do you mean that all charismatic leaders are self-motivated to be creative and with positive intent towards others? or do you mean it would be a good thing if they are? (Incentivated isn’t a word used in English, so I’ve guessed what you mean by it).

  10. Gilberto Scislewski Filho says:

    Hi professor Tudor
    I meant motivated; self-motivation is something extremely hard to do and I do really believe that few people would be able to do it. Although I live this experience daily. It would be easier to increase the leader skills with the motivation; sometimes you can lose a future leader in business for not giving him the “space and tools” for being creative.

  11. davidburkus says:

    I don’t know that it’s fair to label transformational as a modernization of Charismatic leadership. Charismatic leaders sometimes demonstrate a lack of concern for the individual followers, a hallmark of transformational.

  12. Luciano says:

    Hi Tudor!

    Sorry for my delay 😎

    I think the men can surprise us all the time. Unfortunally, morality nowadays is more a “politically correct” behaviour than a real human belief.

    I see Africa, with their social and political collapse(or almost) and i see some kind of morality like that called the survival of the fittest.

    At the same time, i look to “America” (the home of the braves! the land of opportunity) and see nothing different from this.

    Somehow this is like the “evil” filling the gaps we let behind.

    Yes! men should transcend that kind of morality but in fact, they remain faithfull to it more then never.

    So, in the midst of these events we are now looking for traits and maybe revisting born leaders, hoping they go to transformational style.

    In fact, we are hoping for some new kind of leader.

    On this way, I belief YGeneration will produce a different “Transcendental leader” (charismatic plus transformational) who care about others.

    This leader go beyond social or “green” responsabilities. They go beyond the organisations. They go beyond frontiers. They are depply connected with tomorrow and will be new example for the world.

    I´m a believer? I think I believe on the men capability to defeat our challenges. We need fill this lack of real leadership that exists in the world today. I belive on “Level Six Leadership”.

    I believe on this new generation of leaders and I´m trying hard to help them find their own leadership as the same way that you are.

    []´s

  13. Luciano Teixeira says:

    Tudor,

    Don´t you think this new generation of child will provide us a new kind of leadership?

    They have their own perception about life, world and future. The work together seems easier that used to be for us. They are ready for network interactions (as network activators) and they mobilize transformations and changes more easily that we made in the past.

    What you think about this?

    []s

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