Understanding Charismatic Leader

Soeharto, who led the country for over three decades, passed away on Jan. 27. Regardless of the positive and negative aspects of his leadership and the legal case involving him, it must be acknowledged that he was a charismatic leader.

He portrayed confidence and domination. He was a person with a purpose who could articulate his goals and ideas to his followers, who would be ready to accept them psychologically.

The followers would then respond to him, not only cognitively and emotionally but with unquestionable loyalty. Political figures considered to be charismatic leaders included Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi. An example of a living charismatic political leader is Fidel Castro.

In the context of a company in a transitional period or one that is embroiled in various crises, externally or internally, a charismatic leader may turn up. He will be a person that can give the impression that he can restore the condition of the company so that it becomes under control again.

Through convincing argumentation and articulation and inspirational statements, a charismatic leader will be able to rebuild the motivation and willingness of the company’s executives and employees to sacrifice for the sake of the future of the company.

Understanding charisma

Charisma is derived from a Greek word meaning a gift from God. It resembles the ability to work miracles or predict future events. It is no surprise that charisma is frequently linked with political or religious leadership. However, as there are more and more companies trying to introduce changes or restructure themselves, ideas have appeared about which leaders should better lead at a time laden with misery.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, was the first person to introduce the concept of charisma as part of a study on leadership. Weber thought of charismatic leaders as extraordinarily gifted people enjoying high respect.

A charismatic leader exerts an outstanding influence on his followers. He inspires them with moral inspirations and intentions. The followers seem to undergo a magnetic attraction that is more important than just the ordinary experience that they go through. They become highly fanatical.

Assets of a charismatic leader

Someone without a “gift” from God will find it difficult to be a charismatic leader. Indeed you can build charisma if you have a high and robust stature with sharp eyesight and a booming voice. However, more importantly is the capability of building warmth and optimism or the other way around threatening “coldness”.

To be a charismatic leader, one must have at least six features, namely strong self-confidence, a vision way above the status quo, a non-conventional strategy, the ability to judge the situation at hand, the ability to deal with high risk and the ability to communicate ideas at a level that may arouse the emotion of the listeners.

* Strong self-confidence. A leader who looks confident about his proposal will very likely be considered charismatic rather than one who is hesitant and confused. A leader’s confidence and enthusiasm can in fact be communicable. The followers, who believe that their leader knows how to reach the target that has been jointly set, will work harder to implement his strategy so that true success is achieved. If a leader fails to communicate self-confidence, the success of his innovative strategy will be linked more to luck than expertise.

* A vision way above the status quo. Charisma tends to be linked with a leader that defends a vision that is way above the status quo but is still within the followers’ realm of reception. On the other hand, a leader that is not charismatic supports the status quo or will only agree to changes in stages. However, prospective charismatic leaders must beware that their followers will not accept a vision that is too radical. They can even consider their leader incompetent or crazy.

* A non-conventional strategy. Charisma is linked with a leader that acts with non-conventional strategies to achieve a common vision. To reach a dream goal, the strategies of the leader must be different from the conventional ways used in doing things. In this way, the followers will get the impression that their leader is indeed extraordinary. What should be taken into account here is that the non-conventional strategy or way can be either positive or negative in meaning and that there is no necessity that the strategy be morally-based or universally approved.

* The ability to deal with high risk. Charisma is closely linked with a leader willing to sacrifice himself, take a personal risk and face a high cost to achieve his vision. One of the components of charisma is the confidence of the followers. The followers will have more trust in a leader who supports a strategy if he gives full attention to the followers rather than to his own interests. The most impressing thing is that a leader will take quite a big portion of the risk of losses in the context of monetary status, the leadership position or membership in an organization.

* The ability to judge. The risk of employing new strategies requires that a leader should have skills and expertise to make a realistic judgment of the constraints in the environment and the opportunities available to implement the strategies. In this case, timing is very important; a particular strategy could succeed at a particular time and place but may be a complete failure if it is implemented too early or too late. More than this, a leader must be sensitive to the needs and the values of his followers, in addition to showing sensitivity toward the environment so that he can identify an innovative, relevant, timely and attractive vision.

* The ability to communicate. Strong self-confidence will be visible when a charismatic leader communicates with his followers. His ability to communicate at a level that can arouse the emotions of his followers (inspiring admiration and/or fear), like a virus communicable among his followers. His forward-looking vision will be accepted whole-heartedly (or in a highly compelled manner) by the followers thanks to his expert way of communication.

Limitations of a charismatic leader

Even though someone may meet all the criteria set for a charismatic leader, there are still a number of limitations inherent in the effectiveness of a charismatic leader. In creating a vision and inspiring followers, for example, a leader may create unrealistic expectations.

Of course, it would be disadvantageous if a leader failed to fulfill the expectations he created. If the results do not match expectations, it is very likely the followers will feel betrayed. They will then become frustrated and furious. Some could even vent their anger at the individuals who seemingly betrayed these expectations.

A strong leader can give different psychological responses to his followers. Some of them, or in a number of cases the whole organization, will be too dependent on the leader. Meanwhile, the other followers are not happy with the presence of someone who is strong and will spend their time and energy trying to show that the leader is wrong.

In an organization (and a state) led by a charismatic leader, it is very difficult to find a successor. The followers, who are used to such a strong leader, will always compare their new leader with the old one. These followers will frequently require evidence that the present leader is as strong as the leader he replaced.

And in many cases, this new leader will eventually fail because, as noted earlier, many aspects of charismatic leadership are personality traits that are difficult to build in someone who is in actual fact void of them. Not the essence of effective leadership

A charismatic leader is a component that is needed by an organization (or a state) that requires effective transformation or reorganization. However, there are still many other leadership characteristics required to lead effectively.

Although a leader may be charismatic, his management ability in responding to various problems may be limited. This could be attributable to the limitations of time, energy, expertise and attention on the part of this charismatic leader.

Therefore, if various problems turn up simultaneously and demand different skills (for example those related with the market, technology, products and finance), which the leader may not have, there will be a blunder. In fact, various types of strategic changes require different types of management and demand different personal characteristics as well.

*This article published on The Jakarta Post. February, 20th 2008.

Ningky Risfan Munir blogDr. Ningky Sasanti Munir, Lecturer in the Business Management Post-Graduate Program, PPM School of Management, Jakarta.

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