managemnet company strategy managemanet What Is “Charisma,” Anyway?

What Is “Charisma,” Anyway?

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HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. In our leader-obsessed society, how often do we consider the role of followers? Today, we bring you a conversation about the relationship between leaders and followers — with Barbara Kellerman. She’s a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and was a member of the faculty there for more than 20 years. Kellerman explains that there’s a word that describes the powerful, emotional bond that exists between leaders and followers: charisma. That term implies that leaders and their followers share power equally – for better and sometimes for worse. This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in February 2009. Just a note — we recorded this by phone. While the audio quality isn’t great, the conversation is. I think you’ll enjoy it. Here it is.

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the Harvard Business IdeaCast. Today we’re discussing leadership, followership, and that ineffable essence, charisma. And hopefully making it a bit more effable. I’m Sarah Green, an editor at, and I’m on the phone today with Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She’s the author of many books, most recently Followership: How Followers Create Change and Change Leaders. And you can read her writing on as well. Barbara, thanks for joining us today.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: Barbara, you wrote a piece for in which you argued that the word charisma has been watered down in recent years, and that Barack Obama is actually the first truly charismatic president we’ve seen in a long time, and even in our lifetimes. But before we get into that, I wanted to ask you to explain to us what charisma is, and just as importantly, perhaps, what charisma is not.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Well first of all, it’s important to note charisma was first popularized, if that’s the right word, by a German sociologist by the name of Mac Weber, W-E-B-E-R, who divided leadership into three general categories. The first was legal, or rational, which is like the leader of an organization or an elected leader, for that matter. The second is traditional leadership, which would be like the son or daughter, typically the son, of course, of someone who had royal lineage, traditional leadership. And the third was charismatic leadership. Now when Weber first coined the term in its original form, the term was powerful in a way that it generally is not nowadays. Weber intended to talk about a really strong, powerful, emotional bond between leaders and followers. He described followers who followed their leader, went along with their leader gladly, eagerly. Thought so highly of the leader that maybe in today’s terms would be almost considered a cult-like status, almost similar to a religious leader. But in any case the leader’s so highly esteemed and so valued that followers went along gladly. And my point in that article– where I described Obama during the campaign– was that he really was one of the first in recent years to evoke in his followers such strong passions that they would go to great lengths to see him elected. And that’s quite different from the way the word charisma has been used in recent years, which you correctly say. I consider it to have been watered down so it means attractive, or sexy, or appealing, but does not necessarily imply the strong emotional bond to which Weber originally referred.

SARAH GREEN: Barbara, you started talking about charismatic leadership as a relationship between the leader and the followers, and actually put a great deal of emphasis on the followers. But I think that seems a little bit counter intuitive to me, and maybe some of our listeners, since isn’t charisma all about the idea of the leader as hero, the celebrity side of leadership?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Well actually, no. Not in its original and much more persuasive and powerful incarnation. You know, those of us in the leadership field– and I’ve been in the leadership field many years and have written many books and articles on leadership– we all tend to fixate on the leader. It’s part of the human condition. But the genuine leadership is best understood as a relationship. A relationship between the leader and his or her followers, which is why the word leadership is so much more evocative, really, than the word leader. And certainly charismatic leadership implies the power of the follower every bit as much as it does the power of the leader. So, I agree with you, Sarah, that it’s counter intuitive, but that’s only because we’re in a leader obsessed society. We have fixated, certainly in the last 20-30 years. We are constantly talking about training for good leadership, and educating for good leadership, and what is the mission of a leader, and the vision of a leader, and we have neglected– to our own collective detriment– the role of the follower. Which certainly in the 21st century, with changes in the culture, changes in technology, is much more important than it ever was before. So, while it may be counter intuitive, it is not at all erroneous, and it is certainly in keeping with Weber’s original definition of charisma as being all about the relationship between leaders and followers, rather than about the leader per se.

SARAH GREEN: Based on what you just said, I’m curious. Can charisma be taught? Can anyone do it?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Great question, and I would argue, no. We assume that leadership can be taught. And many students where I am now at the Kennedy School, at the Harvard Business School, and people all across the United States and increasingly around the world take leadership courses and workshops and seminars, and they read books on leadership. I still think we have very scant evidence that even good leadership can be taught– not to speak of charismatic leadership. Certainly these courses can help around the edges. I myself assume that in my work. But whether great leadership can be taught– not to speak of charismatic leadership– to me is very much an open question. I think it’s a gift. Sometimes a poisonous gift, I might add. Not all charismatic leaders are by definition great. But it’s a kind of natural gift, just like being a great swimmer, a great athlete of any kind, or, for that matter, a great artist or a great musician. Charismatic leadership, the genuine article, is usually considered great and powerful in some way. And that kind of greatness typically cannot– I at least would argue– be taught.

SARAH GREEN: Now I want to go back to something that you had in the middle of that response, which is the downside, potentially, of charisma. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Well again, depends on how we want to use the word. But if you want to go to an extreme example, Hitler, during the early years of Nazism, this diminished somewhat over time– but before World War II, which started in 1939, Hitler came legally to power in 1933. And there is ample evidence that during those years, of the 1930’s in particular, he was very widely adored in Germany. Not everybody was a Nazi, for sure, but there was a high level of real devotion to the man. So, it is certainly possible to have elements of charismatic leadership, toward ends that are ignoble rather than noble.

SARAH GREEN: I wanted to ask you one final question. And I’m interested because so far in this interview we’ve talked about Barack Obama, and at the other end of the spectrum, Adolph Hitler. And I do often see male leaders more frequently described as charismatic than female leaders. In fact, I was trying to think before we sat down on the phone today if I’d ever heard a woman called charismatic, and I couldn’t think of one. So, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: It’s a wonderful question, Sarah. You know, partly it’s about the numbers. Overwhelmingly in human history, leaders have been men. This is the case now, even as we speak in the 21st century, and it’s been even more the case earlier in human history. So genuine charismatic leadership is really rare. It’s rare in men, and it’s arguably rarer still in women. I cannot easily name a charismatic woman leader. Obviously, people like Carrie Nation– the temperance leaders and so forth, women leaders– have had large followings. But they’re not as well known to us, because women leaders are generally lost in the mist of history generally. And second of all, as I said, there are so few of them relative to men. So the sample size is just way too small to expect that we would have a list of female charismatic leaders, when even the list of genuine male charismatic leaders is short indeed.

SARAH GREEN: And perhaps it has something to do with the fact that charisma, as an idea, has been watered down to the point where it is often confused with something like sex appeal, so maybe we’re just more used to saying that woman, she’s got great sex appeal, you know. You know, instead of thinking of it as charisma.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: You know, it’s funny that you mention sex appeal. Because I’ve written, and I have argued that Sarah Palin– not the Sarah Palin we see now, but the Sarah Palin who was introduced by John McCain, and who was, in the early weeks of her introduction on the national scene, I don’t mean as governor of Alaska– was actually one of the sexiest public women leaders that this country has ever seen. She traded on that. Her audience’s most devoted followers were largely men. Jokes were made about how attractive and appealing she was. But there is a difference between being attractive, or even sexy, and being charismatic.

SARAH GREEN: Well, thank you, Barbara, for joining us today.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: My pleasure, and thank you for having me, Sarah.

HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Kennedy School fellow Barbara Kellerman – in conversation with Sarah Green Carmichael on the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this,  ll at This episode was produced by Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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