What is Charisma?

Charisma is the quality of personality that sets an individual apart from ordinary men so that he is recognized as having otherworldly or at least uniquely exceptional powers and qualities. Charismatic qualities may be found in the leaders of such varied groups as priests, politicians, revolutionists, artists, and socialites.

A leader is said to have charisma not only because he has a calling to fulfill a mission, but also because there is spontaneous recognition on the part of his followers of his uncommon and unusual characteristics, abilities, and personality. This recognition, which is based on irrational feelings and emotions, seems to flow from a quality resembling divine grace in the leader.

The term "charisma" has a wide range of applications, but it is never used to refer to a leader's cause or the end for which he strives. It has reference only to leadership qualities. For example, despite the dissimilarity in their political aims, Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt can both be classified as leaders who had a strong charisma.

In sociological analysis, the term has been used to characterize a certain type of authority. Max Weber, a German sociologist, suggested that there are three kinds of authorities. Two of these, the traditional and the rational, or legal, types, are more or less stable. The third, the charismatic authority, is transitory, unstable, and often a response to a revolutionary social situation. An example of this type of charismatic authority is Napoleon I of France.

Social crises arising out of rapidly changing beliefs, values, and modes of behavior or out of economic and political instability are particularly apt to produce charismatic leaders. Such leadership, therefore, often carries with it the idea of mass excitement and collective fervor. It always challenges ordinary, established practices and generally results in radical societal changes.

The character of the charismatic authority tends to be undemocratic because the leader demands rather than seeks recognition. The leader does not necessarily represent his followers' opinions or even their interests, although there is usually an elating unity between leader and followers. This relationship is precarious and the charismatic leader is likely to lose his authority if his mission fails.

Since charismatic authority is transitory and personal, problems of political continuity necessarily accompany such a phenomenon. It is difficult, for example, to find and justify a successor to such a leader and to maintain his charismatic fervor while ordinary, routine, and stable relations are being reestablished.

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