Charismatic authority

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Max Weber defined charismatic authority as "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him."

The concept has acquired wide usage among sociologists. Other terms used are "charismatic domination"[1] and "charismatic leadership".[2]



Weber applies the term charisma to

[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he or she is set apart from ordinary men or women 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 [...] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.[3][a]


Charismatic authority is

[P]ower legitimized on the basis of a leader's exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.[4]

Leadership is the power to diffuse a positive energy and a sense of greatness

As such, it rests almost entirely on the leader. The absence of that leader for any reason can lead to the authority's power dissolving. However, due to its idiosyncratic nature and lack of formal organization, charismatic authority depends much more strongly on the perceived legitimacy of the authority than Weber’s other forms of authority. For instance, a charismatic leader in a religious context might require an unchallenged belief that the leader has been touched by God, in the sense of a guru or prophet.[5] Should the strength of this belief fade, the power of the charismatic leader can fade quickly, which is one of the ways in which this form of authority shows itself to be unstable.

In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its "recognition" by the leader's followers (or "adepts" - Anhänger). His charisma risks disappearing if he is "abandoned by God" or if "his government doesn't provide any prosperity to those whom he dominates".[b]

A charismatic leader has a strong, distinct personality with an unlimited amount of passion. They have the ability to fill a room with positive energy and inspire people to follow their beliefs. A great leader will develop loyalty and obedience from followers with the strength of their personality. They pay great attention to their environment and the audience around them as they pick up on moods and concerns of individuals and adjust their actions accordingly. A charismatic leader will also pay full attention to the person they are talking to, making them feel as they are a very important part of the organization or group. (

A charismatic leader will gain trust from their followers through visible self-sacrifice and taking personal risks. This shows the followers that they are very passionate about their vision and they will make personal sacrifices in an effort to attain goals for the organization as a whole.

Routinizing charisma[edit]

Charismatic authority almost always endangers the boundaries set by traditional (coercive) or rational (legal) authority. It tends to challenge this authority, and is thus often seen as revolutionary.[7][8] Usually this charismatic authority is incorporated into society. Hereby the challenge that it presents to society will subside. The way in which this happens is called routinization.

By routinization, the charismatic authority changes:

[C]harismatic authority is succeeded by a bureaucracy controlled by a rationally established authority or by a combination of traditional and bureaucratic authority.[9]

A religion which evolves its own priesthood and establishes a set of laws and rules is likely to lose its charismatic character and move towards another type of authority. For example, Muhammad, who had charismatic authority as "The Prophet" among his followers, was succeeded by the traditional authority and structure of Islam, a clear example of routinization.

In politics, charismatic rule is often found in various authoritarian states, autocracies, dictatorships and theocracies. To help to maintain their charismatic authority, such regimes will often establish a vast personality cult. When the leader of such a state dies or leaves office, and a new charismatic leader does not appear, such a regime is likely to fall shortly thereafter, unless it has become fully routinized.[10]


Charismatic leaders have a clear and strong vision for their group that follows their own beliefs and values. They are able to see their goals and display them to their followers in an effort to conquer what they need to attain the vision. A leader's job is to set the vision of the organization. Then they will implement and execute a plan with the help of their followers. In order to set a vision, leaders will build an image in the minds of their followers, often showing why their group is far more superior to any other group.

Charismatic succession[edit]

Because the authority is concentrated in one leader, the death of the charismatic leader would constitute the destruction of the government unless prior arrangements were made. A society that faces the end of their charismatic leader can choose to move to another format of leadership or to have a transference of charismatic authority to another leader by means of succession. In order to transfer charismatic authority to another leader, the two leaders must have the same qualities. There is already a vision set in the minds of the organization, and in order to continue attaining goals, the image must be maintained and not changed. If the image of the organization is changed, there is a chance that followers will be lost. However, a change in vision can also mean an opportunity to gain followers from a different point of view. This is why there are two options upon a death of the charismatic leader.

According to Max Weber, the methods of succession are: search, revelation, designation by original leader, designation by qualified staff, hereditary charisma, and office charisma.[11] These are the various ways in which an individual and a society can contrive to maintain the unique energy and nature of charisma in their leadership.


"The search for a new charismatic leader (takes place) on the basis of the qualities which will fit him for the position of authority." An example of this search method is the search for a new Dalai Lama. "It consists in a search for a child with characteristics which are interpreted to mean that he is a reincarnation of the Buddha." This search is an example of the way in which an original charismatic leader can be made to "live on" through a replacement.[11]


"In this case the legitimacy of the new leader is dependent on the legitimacy of the technique of selection." The technique of selection is the modus operandi of the selection process. In ancient times, oracles were believed to have special access to "divine judgment" and thus their technique in selection was perceived to be legitimate. Their choice was imbued with the charismatic authority that came with the oracle's endorsement.[11] or Islamic Revolution by Khomeyni in Iran.

Designation by original leader[edit]

In this form, the original holder of charismatic authority is perceived to have passed their authority to another. An excellent example is Joseph Stalin's claim that Vladimir Lenin had designated him to be his successor as leader of the USSR. Insofar as people believed in this claim, Stalin gained Lenin's charismatic authority.[11]

Designated by qualified staff[edit]

"A successor (may be designated) by the charismatically qualified administrative staff... (T)his process should not be interpreted as 'election' or 'nomination'... It is not determined by merely a majority vote...Unanimity (is) often required." A case example of this form of succession is the papal conclave of cardinals to choose a new pope. The cardinals taking part in the papal conclave are viewed to be charismatically qualified by their Roman Catholic congregations and thus their choice is imbued with charismatic authority.[11]

Hereditary charisma[edit]

Charisma can be perceived as "a quality transmitted by heredity." This method of succession is present in Kim il Sung's charisma being passed on to his son, Kim Jong Il. This type of succession is a difficult undertaking and often results in a movement toward traditionalization and legalization in authority.[12][11][13]

Office charisma[edit]

"The concept of charisma may be transmitted by ritual means from one bearer to another...It involves a dissociation of charisma from a particular individual, making it an objective, transferable entity." Priestly consecration is believed to be a modus through which priestly charisma to teach and perform other priestly duties is transferred to a person. In this way, priests inherit priestly charisma and are subsequently perceived by their congregations as having the charismatic authority that comes with the priesthood.[11]

Application of Weber's theories[edit]

Weber’s model of charismatic leadership giving way to institutionalization is endorsed by several academic sociologists.

New religious movements[edit]

Eileen Barker discusses the tendency for new religious movements to have founders or leaders who wield considerable charismatic authority and are believed to have special powers or knowledge. Charismatic leaders are unpredictable, Barker says, for they are not bound by tradition or rules and they may be accorded by their followers the right to pronounce on all aspects of their lives. Barker warns that in these cases the leader may lack any accountability, require unquestioning obedience, and encourage a dependency upon the movement for material, spiritual and social resources.[14]

George D. Chryssides asserts that not all new religious movements have charismatic leaders, and that there are differences in the hegemonic styles among those movements that do.[15]


Len Oakes, an Australian psychologist who wrote a dissertation about charisma, had eleven charismatic leaders fill in a psychometric test, which he called the adjective checklist, and found them as a group quite ordinary. Following the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, Oakes argues that charismatic leaders exhibit traits of narcissism and also argues that they display an extraordinary amount of energy, accompanied by an inner clarity unhindered by the anxieties and guilt that afflict more ordinary people. He did however not fully follow Weber's framework of charismatic authority.[16]

Nature v Nurture

Is charismatic leadership innate or can it be nurtured through a certain environment? According to Ronald E Riggio, becoming such a leader is a transformational process. As noted by the man himself: "Charisma is really a process – an interaction between the qualities of the charismatic leader, the followers and their needs and identification with the leader, and the situation that calls out for a charismatic leader, such as a need for change or a crisis". What is not mentioned by him is the fact that certain inherent traits such as physical appearances, can make a person out to be charismatic, when it is their frontal lobe telling them they are attractive. For that matter, maybe physical attractiveness is part of perceiving someone as charismatic, and not just their words and actions, which are attributed to their experiences. Nature and Nurture both contribute to the development of this perception, because charisma is just a perception that is not seen the same by every pair of eyes.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Original German: "»Charisma« soll eine als außeralltäglich (ursprünglich, sowohl bei Propheten wie bei therapeutischen wie bei Rechts-Weisen wie bei Jagdführern wie bei Kriegshelden: als magisch bedingt) geltende Qualität einer Persönlichkeit heißen, um derentwillen sie als mit übernatürlichen oder übermenschlichen oder mindestens spezifisch außeralltäglichen, nicht jedem andern zugänglichen Kräften oder Eigenschaften oder als gottgesandt oder als vorbildlich und deshalb als »Führer« gewertet wird."
  2. ^ A Weber-style charismatic leader need not be a positive force;[6] both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler qualify. Furthermore, sociology is axiologically neutral (Wertfreie Soziologie) towards various forms of charismatic domination: it does not differentiate between the charisma of a Berserker, of a shaman or of that displayed by Kurt Eisner. For Weber, sociology considers these types of charismatic domination in "an identical manner to the charisma of heroes, prophets, the "greatest saviours according to common appreciation".


  1. ^ Power, Domination, Legitimation, and Authority Sociology 250 Retrieved October 2006
  2. ^ Adair-Toteff, Christopher, Max Weber’s Charisma, Journal of Classical Sociology, Vol. 5, No. 2, 189-204 (2005)
  3. ^ Weber, Maximillan. Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Chapter: "The Nature of Charismatic Authority and its Routinization" translated by A. R. Anderson and Talcott Parsons, 1947. Originally published in 1922 in German under the title Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft chapter III, § 10 (available online)
  4. ^ Kendall, Diana, Jane Lothian Murray, and Rick Linden. Sociology in our time (2nd ed.), 2000. Scarborough, On: Nelson, 438-439.
  5. ^ Charismatic Authority: Emotional Bonds Between Leaders and Followers
  6. ^ International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology By Jens Beckert, Milan Zafirovski, Published by Routledge, 2006, ISBN 0-415-28673-5, ISBN 978-0-415-28673-2, pag. 53
  7. ^ WEBER LINKS page http
  8. ^ Kunin, Seth D. "Religion; the modern theories" University of Edinburgh 2003 ISBN 0-7486-1522-9 page 40
  9. ^ Turner, Beeghley, and Powers, 1995 cited in Kendal et al. 2000
  10. ^ International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology By Jens Beckert, Milan Zafirovski, Published by Routledge, 2006, ISBN 0-415-28673-5, ISBN 978-0-415-28673-2, pag. 53
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Szelényi 2009-A.
  12. ^ Szelényi 2009-B.
  13. ^ Szelényi 2009-D.
  14. ^ Barker, E. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction (1990), Bernan Press, ISBN 0-11-340927-3
  15. ^ Chryssides, George D. Unrecognized charisma? A study and comparison of four charismatic leaders: Charles Taze Russell, Joseph Smith, L Ron Hubbard, Swami Prabhupada. Paper presented at the 2001 International Conference The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century, organised by INFORM and CESNUR (London, April 19–22, 2001). Available online
  16. ^ Oakes, Len: Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, 1997, ISBN 0-8156-0398-3


  • Kendall, Diana; Murray, Jane Lothian; Linden, Rick (2000), Sociology in our time (2nd ed.), Scarborough: Nelson 
  • Szelényi, Iván (2009-A), "Weber on Charismatic Authority." Foundations of Modern Social Thought. YaleCourses. New Haven. Lecture.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Szelényi, Iván (2009-B), "Weber on Rational-legal Authority." Foundations of Modern Social Thought. YaleCourses. New Haven. Lecture.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Szelényi, Iván (2009-C), "Weber on Traditional Authority." Foundations of Modern Social Thought. YaleCourses. New Haven. Lecture.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Szelényi, Iván (2009-D), "Conceptual Foundations of Weber’s Theory of Domination." Foundations of Modern Social Thought. YaleCourses. New Haven. Lecture.  Check date values in: |date= (help)

External links[edit]