Charisma and Transformational Leadership Revisited

September 15, 2010
Statue of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. The ...

Image via Wikipedia

 

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.