Excerpted from The ethics of charismatic leadership by Jane M. Howell and Bruce J. Avolio, Academy of Management Executives,
1992, Vol. 6 No.2; and The Charismatic Leader as Narcissist by Daniel Sankowsky,Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1995, Vol. 23, No. 4

(See also Conger and Kanungo’s Charismatic Leadership: The Elusive Factor in Organizational Effectiveness)

According to prevailing theories, followers regard the charismatic leader as one or all of the following:

– Omnipotent (parent archetype); a leader who will nurture and guide them.

– Mystical (in touch with “higher truths”); a leader who knows the way and knows the answers.

– Heroic (perhaps derived from past achievements); a leader who can move mountains,

– Value-driven (concerned with the collective and able to empower it); a leader who’s pure in spirit.

Today’s environment emphasizes organizational learning and follower empowerment — conditions that promote mutual respect and dialogue. However, even in this environment leaders can, sometimes unwittingly, enact subtle abuses. Generally included in the typical definition of power are the notions of dependency and control: a leader’s ability to determine followers’ behavior stems at least in part from the followers’ dependency on the leader. This, in turn, is based on leaders’ control over the various aspects of organizational life affecting followers or perceived as needed by followers, such as material resources and organizational advancement.

Symbolic status refers to a psychological phenomenon: the tendency for followers to tacitly regard leaders as parent figures, a tendency that becomes pronounced in the presence of charismatic leaders. Even unwitting abuse of this power can significantly undermine the followers’ psychological well-being. Symbolic status has its origins in the concept of transference, which occurs when clients symbolize their therapists as parents.

Various management theorists suggest that transference inheres in the leader-follower relationship as well. This means there is a predisposition for followers to mentally construct their relationship with leaders on child-parent terms. Followers tend to be highly motivated to gain the leader’s personal approval and are highly affected by the leader’s actions and beliefs. The motivation and vulnerability described go beyond the present-based normal reactions to a leader. The power of symbolic status, rooted in unconscious drives, enhances a leader’s potential to fundamentally alter followers’ perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. Thus there are ways that leaders, even those who are otherwise well-intentioned, may abuse their power.

The management function associated with such control is communication. The attendant responsibility is the free exchange of clear and unbiased information and the granting of respect for the followers’ views. The power of symbolic status is particularly susceptible to inadvertent abuse, because so much of what underlies it is tacit. For example, leaders may avoid their basic responsibility to promote professional development in followers, perhaps by denying a fair validation of followers’ views, or denying them access to appropriate information, or failing to provide clear and unbiased information and feedback. Leaders must be responsible for taking the time and effort to assist followers’ development. But more important, they should critically examine their own behaviors, especially in the light of negative signals from followers, investigating rather than blaming.

Charismatic leaders can achieve heroic feats (turn around ailing corporations, revitalize aging bureaucracies, or launch new enterprises) by:

– powerfully communicating a compelling vision of the future,

– passionately believing in their vision,

– relentlessly promoting their beliefs with boundless energy,

– propounding creative ideas,

– inspiring extraordinary performance in followers by: 

(a) expressing confidence in followers’ abilities to achieve high standards, and

(b) building followers’ trust, faith, and belief in the leader.

The term charisma is value-neutral: it doesn’t distinguish between good/moral and evil/immoral charismatic leadership. Charisma can lead to blind fanaticism in the service of megalomaniacs and dangerous values, or to heroic self-sacrifice in the service of a beneficial cause. Ethical charismatics develop creative, critical thinking in their followers, provide developmental opportunities, welcome positive and negative feedback, recognize the contributions of others, share information with followers, and have moral standards that emphasize collective interests of the group, organization, or society. The following key behaviors and moral standards further differentiate ethical from unethical charismatic leaders:

Unethical Charismatic Leader — Uses power only for personal gain or impact; promotes own personal vision; censures critical or opposing views; demands that own decisions be accepted without question; one-way communication; insensitive to followers’ needs; relies on convenient external moral standards to satisfy self-interests.

Ethical Charismatic Leader — Uses power to serve othersaligns vision with followers’ needs and aspirationsconsiders and learns from criticismstimulates followers to think independently and to question the leader’s viewuses open, two-way communicationcoaches, develops, and supports followers; shares recognition with others; relies on internal moral standards to satisfy organizational and societal interests.

The double-edged sword of charismatic leadership is readily seen in the impact on followers. Ethical charismatic leaders convert followers into leaders. By expressing confidence in followers’ abilities to accomplish collective goals and encouraging them to think on their own and question established ways of doing things, they create followers who are more capable of leading themselves. Followers feel independent, confident, powerful, and capable. They eventually take responsibility for their own actions, gain rewards through self-reinforcement and — like their leader — establish a set of internal standards to guide their actions and behavior.