What happens to a leader when charisma fades?

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By Dr Scott Taylor
Professor in Leadership & Organisation Studies, Department of Management

Many leaders would like to claim they have charisma, perhaps because it is one of the first terms we reach for when we try to describe what makes a good leader. At the same time, it’s a mysterious, even mystical, idea, reflecting its roots in theology (as an extraordinary power to heal granted by a higher being). There is one thing that we can be sure about, though, from the theological and sociological origins of the idea of charisma to the latest empirical research in the field on business leaders – charisma is fragile and relies on continuous proof of success. This means above all that a leader who relies on or claims charisma should expect it to disappear at some point, sometimes abruptly, because no-one can guarantee continuous success, in politics, business, or any other field.

So what happens when charisma starts to fade – to the leader, to their leadership, and to the followers? First, as Max Weber, the sociologist who developed the social theory of charisma in everyday life told us more than a hundred years ago, the leader’s authority starts to break down. This can be a stark shift for a leader who has become accustomed to being seen as infallible and getting what they want – the move from doing no wrong to being challenged is a significant cognitive and social change.

Second, as Weber and others since have emphasised, loss of charisma and its associated authority is based on the perception of success. Politics and business are both areas where the representation of success can seem fluid, especially in a moment when fake news and murky global accounting are so widely practised. However, there is one key area in both contexts that ultimately resists this: elections and shareholder returns/profit. Both measures of leadership success can be medium term – general elections may not happen for four or five years, and shareholder returns can take a few years of repeated degrowth to cause concern. However the key issue for the fading charismatic leader is not those medium term events – it is the loss of everyday authority. This makes getting things done, in policy or in a work organization, increasingly difficult.

Which brings us, third but probably most important, to followers. Charismatic leadership and authority were initially presented by Weber as alternatives to rational and legal authority. This means that being a follower is characterised by two things: emotion and voluntarism. In other words, followers choose much more freely whether to follow the leader or not, and they are likely to stop following when the leader-follower relationship is no longer emotionally satisfying. When the leader can’t provoke strong positive feelings of purpose or belonging, followers look elsewhere for guidance and satisfaction. They may not find it, but that doesn’t mean they return to the previously charismatic leader – their authority is permanently lost.

So what options are there for ex-charismatics, leaders whose charisma has turned into charisn’t? Weber described a range of possibilities, from a structured search for a similarly charismatic successor to ‘routinization’ (when the person occupying the leader position is automatically seen as charismatic). However none of the options involve the leader remaining in post – perhaps the most important issue for contemporary political and business charismatics, who find it notoriously difficult to leave leadership. After all, if your sense of who you are is tied into the fact that you’re in a temporary position of leadership, and if you enjoy the power or status of the position, then it’s going to be awkward to return to being a ‘civilian’. Sympathy for this is likely to be limited, though – charismatic leaders can leave considerable damage behind them as they exit.

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