Charismatic Leadership: Good or Bad?

by Dennis Cederberg, Marie Celina Rauscher, Simon Salloum, and Carsten Stork |

What is Charismatic Leadership?



The concept of charismatic leadership is not only associated with engaging personalities like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama, it can also be linked to the rhetoric skills of Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. It is therefore crucial to look at charismatic leadership from a theoretical and empirical perspective in order to give practical implications for positive charismatic leadership outcomes. Past research has presented multiple, distinctive definitions of the term charismatic leadership. Accordingly, it can be observed that the previous attempts to provide a proper definition have led to the development of two overarching approaches (Banks et al., 2017: 508). The first approach focuses on the outcomes and antecedents of charismatic leadership and is best represented by the definition stating that “charismatic leaders communicate missions and visions as distal goals and socially desirable outcomes” (Conger & Kanungo, 1987: 643; Buengeler, Gebert & Heinitz, 2016: 99). This set of definitions focuses on the leader´s particular behavior. As a consequence, this approach generally concurs with the idea that charismatic leadership can be learned since it can be regarded as a function of the leader’s behavior (Kent & Salvaggio, 2016: 1225). Yet, past research argues that the focus on outcomes and antecedents of charismatic leadership confuses both with the construct itself (Banks et al., 2017: 509).

The other approach however, consists of definitions which aim at describing the leadership style by making use of the leader´s general characteristics and traits. This approach has been coined by Max Weber who argued that charisma can be regarded as a gift and that charismatic leaders seem to develop a supernatural power over their followers (Bass & Milosevic, 2014: 225). Furthermore, a charismatic leader does not necessarily have to be an appointed leader, a charismatic leader emerges in moments of distress in which his or hers gifts are crucial for overcoming the particular distress (Weber, 1978: 1224; Bass & Milosevic, 2014: 226). Consequently, this approach aligns with the perception that charismatic leadership cannot be learned since it requires at “least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (Weber, 1978: 350; Kent & Salvaggio, 2016: 1224). However, past research reveals that this particular approach causes empirical problems since the Weber-based indicators cannot be measured nor sufficiently operationalized (Banks et al., 2017: 509). In order to overcome the particular weaknesses of the two distinctive approaches and to harmonize their conceptual ideas, charismatic leadership can be described as “values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden leader signaling” (Antonakis et al., 2016: 294; Banks et al., 2017: 509).


How Does it Work?

According to Banks et al. (2017), the personality traits openness to experience, conscientiousness and extraversion are positively associated with charismatic leadership (Banks et al., 2017: 511). Therefore, a charismatic leader has a strong need for power, self-confidence and is convinced of his or her own beliefs and ideals. An important instrument of a charismatic leader is the articulation of a vision by using expressive forms of communication (Wilderom et al., 2012: 836). This vision forms the basis for inspiring his or her followers and instilling positive ideals into them to sensitize them to the goal of desirable, positive results (Shao et al., 2017: 197). A language is used that contains, for example, metaphors or symbols that are relevant to the experience and values of the followers and that can directly influence the perception of charisma (Grabo et al., 2017: 478). In this regard, they convey high performance expectations through trust and respect shown by their followers (Grabo et al., 2017: 479).

In matters of influence processes, charismatic leaders motivate their followers by expressing their optimism and trust in them. This is intended to motivate their subordinates to make greater efforts and to demonstrate the necessary behaviors to achieve a higher level of performance (Banks et al., 2017: 512). Charismatic leaders achieve this kind of influence by using or sending out signals that convey the demand for high standards, a collective identity and a passion for success (Banks et al., 2017: 512). With regard to the signals sent out by charismatic leaders, they use direct and indirect signals. In the case of direct signals, the leader has a direct influence on the outcome of his followers, while in the case of indirect signals, public speeches and symbolic actions are intended to alter or align the values and beliefs of the followers (Grabo et al., 2017: 480). The articulation of warm and nurturing relationship skills requires an expression of passion and positive emotions as well as a strong social dominance, affiliation and positive emotional life (Banks et al., 2017: 511). In this regard, leaders must pay attention to their signals in direct, indirect, verbal and non-verbal terms as well as to their physical attractiveness in connection with healthiness, since these serve their own leadership potential (Grabo et al., 2017: 478).

Of particular importance is also the articulation of a vision which helps to develop common values, norms and a collective identity within a group and enables followers to build an identity with the group or organization (Grabo et al., 2017: 479). The transmission of false signals can cause negative effects, which ultimately leads to disregard of the leader by the followers.


Is Charismatic Leadership Effective?

Considering the positive characterization of charismatic leaders, it may be tempting to automatically assume this leadership style is more effective than others. However, before looking at any research findings concerning the effectiveness of charismatic leadership, it is necessary to differentiate between positive and negative characteristics of charismatic leaders.

Positive charismatics distinguish themselves through a strong socialised power orientation. Positive charismatics lead by example and make great self sacrifice if necessary to push their vision and the mission of the whole group. The delegation of authority is a normal process of positive charismatic leadership and thus, the leader shares information broadly to most of the members of the organisation. Furthermore, a participative decision making is installed and rewards are used to reinforce behaviour consistent with the overall mission of the organisation. By contrast, negative charismatics have a strong personalised power orientation. They use the common ideology of an organisation to gain more power and to control their followers. Accordingly, they seek to dominate their subordinates and try to centralise the power on their own person. Punishments and rewards are often used to manipulate the followers and to use the dependence of the followers as an leverage to get more own power. Finally, information is withheld by the leader and only a small group of elites gets access to the important information they need (House & Howell, 1992; Howell, 1988; Musser, 1987). It becomes clear that only positive charismatic leadership can have long term positive effects on the well-being of employees and the performance of a company.

Empirical findings concerning the effectiveness of charismatic leadership are mixed. The results of the studies vary depending on the research design, sample size and in particular on the measurement of charismatic leadership. Banks et al. (2017) conducted a systematic review in the form of a meta-analysis of 76 independent studies and 36.031 individuals to identify outcomes of charismatic leadership. Using supervisor-rated and objective measures of performance outcomes, they found that idealized influence and inspirational motivation have a positive effect on follower behaviors related to organizational citizenship behaviors, on supervisor-rated task performance and group- or firm-level performance (Banks et al., 2017: 517). The authors therefore conclude that charismatic leadership is particularly important in environments where organizational citizenship behaviors are valuable for front line employees (Banks et al., 2017: 520). Similarly, the findings presented by Wilderom et al. (2012) confirm that charismatic leaders, by expressing an attractive vision and confidence in followers, have a positive effect on the motivation of their followers to perform at their best to increase the company’s financial performance (Wilderom et al., 2012: 844).

Focussing on team processes and innovative outcomes in research and development teams, Paulsen et al. (2009) found that charismatic leaders increase innovative outcomes and team efficacy as they support cooperative interactions, team identity, a belief in the team’s vision and encourage confidence in team members’ abilities (Paulsen et al., 2009: 520). Furthermore, LePine et al. (2016) examined the influence of charismatic leaders on followers appraisal of different types of stressful job demands and how these cognitive appraisals impact job performance (LePine et al., 2016: 1039). Their findings reveal that charismatic leader behaviors can turn followers’ perceptions of stressor pain to performance gain (LePine et al., 2016: 1037). Through their inspirational way of leading and communicating optimism and a vision, their followers appraised stressful job demands as promoting achievement and growth, and were more likely to respond to this appraisal with higher performance (LePine et al., 2016: 1053).



Past research does not provide a consistent definition of charismatic leadership. It can be observed that in most cases, the leadership style is either defined by regarding its outcomes and antecedents or by focusing on the leader’s characteristics and traits. However, defining charismatic leadership as values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden leader signaling, provides the most suitable working definition. The charismatic leadership style is characterised by the leader’s personality traits openness to experience, conscientiousness and extraversion. Furthermore, it can be seen that charismatic leaders use signals and a strong and symbolic language to articulate an appealing vision aimed at inspiring and motivating their followers. The empirical findings reveal that charismatic leadership is especially effective in challenging and unstructured situations like innovation processes or stressful job demands as well as in environments where organizational citizenship behaviors are valuable. Under these circumstances, charismatic leaders with their ability to create a vision and team identity inspire their followers to master these challenges as a team. Due to the fact that this powerful influence is primarily based on visions, ideals and inspiration, it is important to stress the responsibility of charismatic leaders. There exists the inherent risk of charismatic leaders taking advantage of their power to pursue their individual interests. Therefore, it is crucial for the leader to be aware of his influence and vice versa for the followers to question the leaders’ motives and interests.

In conclusion, this leads to selection and training procedures for management that should focus on charismatic behaviors such as:

  • Articulating an appealing vision and explaining followers how the vision can be attained;
  • Instilling positive ideals and communicating optimism and enthusiasm;
  • Focussing on agreeableness by articulating values that are universal, working to
    reduce incompatibilities and promoting harmony;
  • Inspiring, motivating and using actions with symbolic character to express values;
  • Expressing confidence in followers’ abilities;
  • Encouraging team members to cooperate through the expression of ideas and participation
    in decisions;
  • Building on a strong team identity by strengthening their followers sense of belonging.



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