Weber's 'charismatic leader' is misleading

August 24, 2020

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The 'charismatic leader' can be traced back at least to Weber. But it's a misleading title.

Max Weber is a celebrated Sociologist, with many excellent commentaries on politics.

In his tripartite classification of authority, he speaks of three 'ideal' kinds of political leadership, domination, and authority:

  1. charismatic authority, that borne of character or perhaps heroism;
  2. traditional authority, borne of structures such as patrimonialism or feudalism; and
  3. rational-legal authority, borne of bureaucracy and statehood.

He describes a process where leaders commence as charismatic ones, progress to those supported by a traditionalist structure, until eventually reaching the state of a rational-legal authority.

It's an interesting lens to view leadership through. However, something gets lost in the category of 'charismatic'.

The very term itself, charismatic, implies a kind of specialness about this type of leader. Weber himself waxes lyrical (or Wikipedia for the English):

he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader

Yet, in this structure, many leaders who are not particularly special are forced into the charismatic strata.

Consider, for example, the violent leader. There is no need for anything more special here than the willingness to employ aggression. Or consider those people we might turn to in times of trouble: doctors, policemen, anyone with the competence to help us solve our problem. These leaders are not special beyond their skill and the circumstance that led us to them.

Related to this latter kind of leader, consider also Greenleaf's "servant leader". Here is a leadership subculture devoted to leading people by being there for them. The basic notion is that by performing for others, others will seek us out.

'Charismatic leaders' then, have no particular need for charisma. They are simply what's left over when there is no traditional structure or law-making architecture in sight.

When we consider the often bizarre patterns of behaviour that fall out of loneliness, it's no wonder that our collective culture has seized this notion of the charismatic leader. People doing strange things at the behest of a person could surely only be possible if that person was special. But the truth is that sometimes leaders are only leaders of convenience. Sometimes that's all it takes.

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