Is charisma the key success?

Written by
Steve Kempster

28 Jan 2016

28 Jan 2016 • by Steve Kempster

Charisma is defined as being a ‘gift from God’. In our recent research on charismatic leadership seen through followers eyes it should be redefined as a 'gift from followers'. The gift is related to how followers respond to what they see, hear and witness by the people who seek to leader them. This follower centric gift has been missing from our understanding. Our research has set out to try and explain what charismatic leadership might be by finding out more about this other side of the relationship.

Followers create leaders

An important question here is why do people respond in positive ways to leaders in positions of power? Followers play an important role in 'granting' a leader the opportunity to be seen as charismatic, and by responding in positive ways to their leadership. The leader has to 'claim' that response from followers as a charismatic leader by establishing a particular character; a character recognised and respected by followers. Exploring this we discovered  there is also a relationship between charisma and love. There are different types of love, and charisma might be closer to the love of a father than to the love of a spouse or a child. Seen in this light, charisma can be seen as a kind of 'patriarchy': there is a symbolic figure (whether the leader is male or female) who provides a combination of power, domination, control, rank and status as well as demonstrating love, protection, support and fidelity. This notion of love and charisma made us curious as to whether there might be something deeper that helps to explain how the relationship between a charismatic leader and their followers might work. 
We spoke with several groups of executives and MBA students, 144 people in all. They were asked to think of a person from their organisational experience who was charismatic and reflect upon their relationship. In these focus groups, the anecdotes and stories of the various experiences had a narrative tone to them. Some were very dramatic. Some were homely. Some were quite funny. We undertook further focus groups to allow the ‘followers’ to elaborate upon the nature of any 'affection' and following a charismatic leader, resulting in three clear clusters of experience: the ‘positive-affect cluster’ – including metaphors such as ‘leadership by example’, ‘butter – makes things better’, ‘many times knocked down and gets back up’, ‘wistfulness’ and ‘favourite uncle not to disappoint’; the second cluster reflected a narrative that was represented by moderate levels of all  emotions. This is the ‘positive-negative-affect cluster’ - people suggested metaphors of ‘warmth of the sun’, ‘born to be wild + scary movie’, ‘chalk and cheese’ and ‘a superhero but you know his identity’); the third cluster reflected high anger and low levels of the other emotions. This is the ‘anger cluster’ with metaphors of ‘black sheep’, ‘fighting a war’ and ‘surviving in a life raft’.

Is it a love-hate relationship?

The research has revealed something important about charismatic leadership from the follower perspective: that it is something of a love-hate relationship. In an organisational or workplace setting, of course, the nature of the dramatic narrative is far less intense and passionate and perhaps the notion could be more like ‘love–frustration’ or ‘love–agitation’ or even ‘love–resentment’. This respectful love is something bestowed onto the leader, the gift we have mentioned from their followers. It is something that followers give voluntarily - but only on the basis of trust in the power and authority of the leader and evidence of the leader's ongoing interest in their welfare. 
From a development perspective we don't suggest there are somehow ‘silver bullets’ to developing charismatic leadership. Managers in leadership roles need to think about taking on the kinds of identities that followers relate to, to shape their behaviour and management style. They might be encouraged to interact with followers in the way that this archetype might act, making it more likely they'll be regarded as charismatic by their teams, and generate the positive emotions that create a virtuous circle. Also, managers could try to enact the relative narrative or drama that they see as most relevant to their context and audience: a wise, respected relative, perhaps part-parent and part-teacher. Family roles seem to figure prominently in the archetypes and metaphors that emerged from this research. The ‘plot’ for this drama might be part-comedy, part-family movie and part-drama.

From time to time, there will be some ‘action’ in this narrative. The ‘audience’ know their job. They just need support to get on with it. The script, costume and setting are all important in this context. So leaders need to work at creating a story of being charismatic that their people can see and feel and relate to. The emotional impact on the audience will be that of affection and some humour - and perhaps a little anxiety and intermittent frustration, but most importantly, everyone will want a ‘happy ending’ to this kind of narrative drama.