Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

What Is Charisma and Charismatic Leadership?

Is charisma born or made? What makes leaders charismatic?

Many of history’s most effective leaders are labeled charismatic. Yet, there is a great deal of controversy about whether charisma is made or born, and if charismatic leaders are actually effective. A while back, I was interviewed as part of a celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of the most frequently asked questions about charismatic leadership were part of that interview.

Question: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Winston Churchill were known as dynamic, charismatic and inspirational leaders. What particular traits or qualities did someone like MLK possess that allowed him to lead and inspire so many people?

Charismatic leaders are essentially very skilled communicators – individuals who are both verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to followers on a deep, emotional level. They are able to articulate a compelling or captivating vision, and are able to arouse strong emotions in followers.

Question: Is charisma something that you are born with – you either have it or you don’t? Do you think most leaders, politicians and inspirational figures have charisma and is it that particular quality which makes them stand out?

Charisma is really a process – an interaction between the qualities of the charismatic leader, the followers and their needs and identification with the leader, and the situation that calls out for a charismatic leader, such as a need for change or a crisis. But when it comes to the charismatic qualities of leaders, the emphasis is on how they communicate to followers and whether they are able to gain followers’ trust, and influence and persuade them to follow.

Most politicians, particularly on the national scene, have developed their ability to communicate effectively – to make speeches, “work the room” with potential donors and supporters, etc. So many seasoned politicians have a lot of “personal charisma.”

Question: What are several important characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?

A model that I think represents the very best leaders, and research bears this out, is transformational leadership. You can think of transformational leadership as going beyond charisma, because two of the components of transformational leadership deal with charisma. They are:

Idealized Influence, the first component, is the leader’s ability to be a positive (and moral) role model for followers. The transformational leader also “walks the talk,” and is on the “front line” working with followers (think MLK Jr.), or leaders who sacrifice along with their followers. In business, the charismatic/transformational leader sometimes serves as the “face” of the company or the movement (think Steve Jobs).

Inspirational Motivation is the second quality of transformational leaders and it is what charismatic leaders are noted for: their ability to inspire and motivate followers to perform at high levels, and to be committed to the organization or the cause.

The other two elements of transformational leadership are: Intellectual Stimulation – challenging followers to be creative and think outside of the box – and Individualized Consideration – being responsive to the feelings and developmental needs of followers.

Transformational leaders are charismatic, but they are also noted for leading high performing groups and teams, and developing followers’ leadership capacity, as much as helping the group or organization to change and innovate.

Question: What are some behaviors or traits that might derail a leader/politician’s career or stand in their path to success?

The biggest thing that can derail a leader is arrogance, and a lack of concern or responsiveness to followers and constituents. We have seen how politicians’ and CEOs’ arrogance – thinking they are above the law, and committing ethical violations lead to their demise. Also, a leader needs to succeed more often than not, and learn from mistakes and setbacks.

Question: Are leaders born or made, in your opinion?

This isn’t something that requires my opinion, because this question has been well researched. Twin studies by Richard Arvey and his colleagues have estimated that leadership is about 2/3 “made” and 1/3 “born.” This makes sense, though, if we see much of leadership as a set of learned skills and competencies: ability to communicate, strategize, problem solve, etc. These take time to develop.

This question would have broad implications for leadership, for if it were all (or mostly) born, then our efforts should be directed toward identifying and selecting leaders, and we would be wasting our time on leader development programs. But, the research suggests that putting resources into leader development makes sense, and recent meta-analyses of these programs suggest that, in general, they work and lead to positive gains.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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