Larger than life and more enduring than time, their names remain known and their works referred to yet today. People like Jesus, Caesar Augustus, and Charlemagne anchor ancient history. In the more recent past it is Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Henry Ford, Aimee Semple McPherson, Churchill, Hitler (despicable but charismatic nonetheless), Patton, Walt Disney, and countless more known less well but effective within smaller circles.
Charismatic power has traction because the leader is verbally eloquent and able to articulate a vision of meaning to his/her followers. They are celebrities in their own right even if their field is not entertainment. And in a world where media reigns supreme, charismatic leaders have a lock on power.
Plus it doesn’t even matter if they know what they’re talking about.
The influence of a celebrity is why product endorsements are so lucrative. The product endorsement business is gigantic, many millions of dollars every year. Despite a few failed associations, celebrity endorsements work.
We grant authority to charismatic figures (we cede to them power) because of their supposed status. Indeed, some charismatic leaders are persons of exceptional heroism, character, and ability. Sadly, most are not. They only appear to be. It has more to do with the relationship between the leader and their followers than it does with the leaders exceptional abilities. The charismatic leader who finds a receptive audience has struck a chord within them and they respond. Too many of those charismatic leaders tend to be two dimensional, possessing bigger than life appearance. Often they either lack depth or they simply are not what one supposes and ascribe them to be.
Often manifest in religious groups and politics, both of which require a suspension of credible belief to function. They call on ideals, evoke images of a brighter, better tomorrow, and persuade followers to participate in their pursuit of that tomorrow.
C.S. Lewis defined a celebrity as one who is well known for being well-known. They play on their image behind which there may or may not be any substance. I am not implying deception although I will acknowledge that it does sometimes occur. Like the wizard of Oz, they do not want you to see behind the curtain. Television, radio, the internet facilitate this quite well because of its ability to broadcast an edited performance allowing the leader to control what the followers see and hear.
The farther away and higher up the ladder, the more power we tend to give them. I call this the prophet from another country syndrome, taken from the words of Jesus in the New Testament when he said that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. It implies that if you really knew who the person was and understood what they were really like, they would not have nearly the same power.
Charismatic leadership works because it taps into a dynamic of motivation all effective leaders understand. When followers admire what you have to say and how eloquently you can say it, they will follow enthusiastically. Conversely, as I will address in the very next post, there are men and women of exceptional character who lack eloquence and flash. Their possess intelligence, vision, and character, but are handicapped because of a lack of charisma.
Charisma is not a bad thing. It is merely a dynamic. Used by unscrupulous people it is disastrous. Employed by persons of character and honor, magnificent things happen.
Here’s the video: