Charismatic leaders and organizations

On any book or writing about organizations there is a special interest in what is known as the “charismatic leader”. This charismatic leader is mostly associated with social movements, activists and revolutionaries, but they can be found on any other organization such as a company or a government body.

A leader, his followers and his opposition (courtesy of G CACAKIAN)

A charismatic leader, a term coined by Weber, is just a leader that obtains his (her) power from the admiration of his followers. The charismatic leader is usually seen as a hero or a saint, being a great role model, an example to follow. This contrasts with the other two kind of authority, the traditional authority that obtains its power from a god or nature itself and the rational-legal authority that justifies its legitimacy following a set of procedures and proving some qualifications.

As the rationalization of society was invading our life, the role of the charismatic leader was losing its magical aura. There are a lot of stories about leaders that were announced by natural manifestations (the stars aligned, there was an eclipse, etc) or any other signs (prophets, mystics, etc). All these signs made that man a hero, a leader, someone powerful, someone to follow. With the introduction of rationalization, these signs were not important and the leader had to win over their audiences with great speeches, heroic feats or exemplary behavior.

A funny thing about charismatic leaders is what happens after they are gone. During their life they do great things, they teach their followers a new way of thinking and do many things for his cause, community, company or country. Once the charismatic leader passes away, if the collective is to outlive him (or her), the leader must pass his authority to others. This is a great problem as the one who receives the authority may not be charismatic or can be seen as bad or weak replacement. So, how does an organization based on a charismatic leader survive?

We have a great example on religion. After Jesus or Buddha died, their teachings were transformed into a set of rules and practices, that is, what started as an inspirational leadership becomes an institution. Neither founded churches or declared a hierarchy, but today their followers are arranged in a hierarchy and rituals are performed in many churches and temples.

When a leader dies we replace them with another, the organization survives. Institutional memory saves the day (or not…)

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