Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-Measured Gift - Deepstash
Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-Measured Gift

Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-Measured Gift

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What Is Charisma?

Most scholars and lay people have some sort of implicit notion of what charisma is, the “you-know-it-when-you-see it” phenomenon. As it refers to leadership, many use the term to refer to some sort of gift, charm, or alchemic ability—inaccessible to most—that some leaders have making them able to federate followers around a cause.


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What Is The Nature Of Charisma?

Yet, thinking of charisma in such terms makes for a fuzzy concept to study. How can we measure such a gift? Is it really a “gift,” does it depend on individual differences like personality or intelligence, is it a context-triggered phenomenon, or a set of skills that can be developed? What is the nature of this concept and does it have consequential outcomes?


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Charisma - A Hazy Topic Equated To Another Hazy Topic

Adding to the confusion is that the concept of “charisma” is frequently equated to or confounded with another hazy topic in organizational behavior, “transformational leadership” (Yukl 1999). And, despite the best efforts of scholars to constructively critique these two constructs so that leadership research can move on (e.g., van Knippenberg & Sitkin 2013), equating two fundamentally different concepts like charisma and transformational leadership has made the fog over the leadership landscape thicker still.


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Charisma Needs A Theory Of Its Own

Untethering charisma from transformational leadership theory and measurement, pointing out the conceptual gaps, definitional problems, and methodological shortcomings, has immense importance for society and is vital for theory development and the empirical research that it will trigger.

However, it is important for practice too because charismatic leaders wield enormous power and can use this power to accomplish great good or evil; thus it is essential to understand what charisma is, its antecedents, moderators, and consequences.

It is time to take the construct of charisma to the next level.


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A brief history of research on charisma

The term “charisma” is usually credited to the writings of the Max Weber. He borrowed, secularized, and expanded the term from literature on religion (Sohm 1892), and referred to charisma as an extraordinary power, giving leaders salvationist qualities to deliver followers from great upheaval (Weber 1947, Weber 1968). 


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Variants of the term “charisma,” however, predate Sohm as well as biblical sources, and have roots in classical Greek mythology—the graces, Charites, and in particular the goddess Charis (Smith 1998). The term charis signifies much in classical Greek; in addition to gratitude (as in eucharist), it can refer to charm, excitement, beauty, pleasure as well as allurement (Maclachlan 1996).


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