Sociologist Max Weber popularized the concept of the charismatic leader early in the twentieth century, but in the century or so since Weber’s death, “charisma” has evolved as a concept.
Like leadership, the exercise of charisma is a “community” process.
Today, the term is applied to everyone from pop stars to football heroes to reality television stars, and it has moved closer to the concept of “celebrity” in recent years. Yet most of us know people in our ordinary, non-celebrity lives who project something more than everyone else, and who we might describe as charismatic.
Charisma in its modern sense is often situational, and indeed, even Weber argued that the charismatic leader often emerges during times of crisis. But crises pass, business goes on, teams change, and yet the need for strong leadership remains the same. Is charisma the key to strong leadership, or is it something else?
Charisma and the Sense of Community
Think about it: coalescing around someone with charisma imparts a sense of community, of belonging. And psychologists say that a sense of belonging is a basic human need just like food and shelter. Charisma in the sense of “star power” or being somehow set apart (in a positive way) from ordinary people can certainly kickstart a sense of community, as has been seen in religious movements throughout recorded history.
But charisma isn’t mandatory for building community: Honesty, communication, commitment, and hard work are. Certainly, a charismatic person can use their captivating qualities to lead, but they can also use charm for nefarious purposes.
Charisma without Character Is Ultimately Hollow
Ultimately, it is character rather than charisma that is a necessary leadership attribute. Interestingly, though the words “character” and “charisma” share the same first four letters, they come from different roots. Character traces its roots back to the Greek kharaktēr, meaning what is imprinted on the soul. Charisma goes back to the Greek kharisma which refers to a divine favor or gift. In other words, character is who we are at the very core, while charisma is something extra.
Character without charisma can move mountains. Charisma without character may give the impression of greatness, but it cannot stand the test of time.
Leadership, unlike charisma, doesn’t require a bright spotlight to work.
People Can Detect Empty Charisma
We live in an age of connectedness, communication, and sharing, and the person who possesses charisma without possessing a strong character has a harder time getting away with it. Maybe people are more cynical about charisma today, or maybe people are less afraid of calling out hollow charisma, but trying to lead based on charisma that isn’t backed up by something lasting and genuine is ultimately futile.
There’s nothing wrong with having charisma, and indeed it can help jumpstart a sense of community and mission. But authenticity and humility simply have to be present for leadership to work. Both leadership development programs and leadership coaching frequently focus on skills like communication and emotional intelligence so that the leader’s authenticity comes through in their leadership. If these people happen to have charisma that’s fine, but it isn’t the charisma that does the leading: it’s a strong character.
The Leadership Skills That Matter Most
People in positions of leadership can (and should) develop their “people skills” through training and practice, just like other skills. Leadership is in many ways about developing a community of talent, ability, and commitment and leaders must have the skills necessary to cultivate community – skills like excellent communication and emotional intelligence. Any natural charismatic tendencies will naturally be enhanced by such training and practice as well.
Leadership development programs and leadership coaching must focus on what gets results long term. Charisma may or may not be lasting, but character and leadership skills certainly are. Charisma may be a nice leadership attribute, and it can be beneficial in some situations. But leaders are wise to focus their efforts on developing the leadership attributes that have always and will always matter if they want to be as effective as possible.