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What is Charismatic Leadership? Leading Through Personal Conviction

The charismatic leadership style relies on the charm and persuasiveness of the leader. Charismatic leaders are driven by their convictions and commitment to their cause.

Charismatic leaders also are sometimes called transformational leaders because they share multiple similarities. Their main difference is focus and audience. Charismatic leaders often try to make the status quo better, while transformational leaders focus on transforming organizations into the leader’s vision.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a charismatic leader who used powerful oratory, an engaging personality, and unwavering commitment to positive change in the lives of millions of people.

Read on to discover more about charismatic leadership:

Charismatic leadership defined

What sets charismatic leaders apart is that they are “essentially very skilled communicators, individuals who are both verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to followers on a deep, emotional level,” said Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, in his Psychology Today article “What is Charisma and Charismatic Leadership?”

Charismatic leaders are often identified in times of crisis and exhibit exceptional devotion to and expertise in their fields. They are often people with a clear vision in business or politics and the ability to engage with a large audience.

A charismatic leadership definition is incomplete if it does not focus on the leader personally. More than other popular leadership styles, charismatic leadership depends on the personality and actions of the leader — not the process or structure.

Differences between charismatic leadership and other styles

“Charismatic leadership is a leadership style that is recognizable but may be perceived with less tangibility than other leadership styles,” writes Mar Bell in “Charismatic Leadership Case Study with Ronald Reagan as Exemplar.”

Charismatic leadership is similar to other styles. Both it and transformational leadership rely on the ability of the leader to influence and inspire followers. Transformational and charismatic leaders motivate the individual or those around them to be better and to work for the greater good of an organization or society. Other similarities include:

  • Leaders rally those around them in service of a common goal
  • Initiative and boldness are encouraged

The differences between charismatic and transformational leadership styles lie primarily in how the individual is viewed.

  • The personal vision of a charismatic leader has a great deal of influence over his or her audience
  • Charismatic leaders speak about their moral compass or passion rather than an existing method of doing business

Democratic and charismatic leaders compared

When compared to democratic leadership, similarities to the charismatic style include:

  • They both place considerable responsibility on the leader
  • Leaders guide employees, team members or volunteers in a particular direction
  • There is often a spirit of collaboration

The differences between charismatic leadership and democratic leadership include:

  • In democratic leadership, workers must have high-level skills in addition to the desire to work
  • Democratic leaders are highly rational and deliberate in their style
  • Charismatic leaders appeal to the emotions of the audience
  • In the charismatic leadership style, working toward a greater good is emphasized

Comparing autocratic and charismatic leadership

Likewise, charismatic and autocratic leadership styles share some traits. Both leaders often increase employee productivity. The key difference: The charismatic leader typically inspires employees to perform. The autocratic leader uses their authority to demand high performance. The short-term result is identical, although the long-term consequences may differ.

Charismatic leaders structure their organizations as they see fit. This is another example of a crossover between charismatic and autocratic leadership styles. The intensity of both styles may also generate early burnout of their leaders (and followers).

History of charismatic leadership

German sociologist Max Weber first published his book “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule” in 1958. In it, he sets forth a tripartite classification of authority for organizations and governments:

  • Traditional
  • Legal/rational
  • Charismatic

Two forms of order: authority and norms

Weber suggests that there are two fundamental forms of order: norms and authority. In organizations with authoritative order, people follow rules set by their leader. Transactional and bureaucratic leadership styles fit into this form of order.

Institutions that use norms depend on the appeal of their mission and vision to inspire allegiance in employees or followers. Charismatic leaders use norms to build a strong emotional relationship with the people who work for them.

Examples of charismatic leadership

Charismatic leaders are from all walks of life. In addition to business, this leadership style can be found in religious institutions and political and social movements.

Religious examples of charismatic leadership

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born in 1929, Dr. King followed in the footsteps of his father as a Baptist minister. He started his civil rights career as the leader of the bus boycott the night that Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King’s powerful speeches and belief in peaceful protest put energy into the civil rights movement. In January 1957, he and several others founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1960, Dr. King gained national notoriety for his arrest at a lunch counter sit-in, which came to the attention of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. He was soon released and went on to have even greater influence in the fight for civil rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches ignited smaller movements for equal rights through the American South and beyond. Dr. King is best known for the August 28, 1963, march on Washington that drew more than 200,000 people. At that march, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

Mother Teresa

Born in Macedonia (now Yugoslavia) as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910, Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun best known for her work with the poor. Mother Teresa joined the Sisters of Loreto when she was 18 and moved to India in 1929. As a novitiate, she was sent to Calcutta and taught at St. Mary’s School for Girls.

In 1946, Mother Teresa abandoned teaching to follow what she considered her calling, founding the Missionaries of Charity to live and serve in the slums of Calcutta. Over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, she established a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile clinics.

In 1971, she traveled to New York to open her first U.S.-based house of charity. In 1985, she spoke at the 40th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly. By the time of her death, the Missionaries of Charity numbered over 4,000 sisters with 610 foundations in 123 countries. Her inspiring, devout persona and devotion to a singular idea make her a good example of a charismatic leader.

Pope John Paul II

In 1920, Pope John Paul ll was born in Poland as Karol Józef Wojtyla. Under Nazi occupation, he began his theological studies in a secret seminary in 1938 and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1946. John Paul became the bishop of Ombi in 1958.

Well regarded for his work in the church, John Paul was made a cardinal in 1967. In 1978, he was elected pope, a role he occupied until his death in 2005. Pope John Paul II was instrumental in examining the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the modern world. He traveled to more than 100 countries and was a vocal advocate for human rights.

Political examples of charismatic leadership

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911. He gained fame as an actor after signing a seven-year movie contract with Warner Brothers in 1937. During World War ll, he made training films for the military. Although he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a labor union, Reagan’s political views shifted from liberal to conservative in the 1950s.

He began giving motivational talks to businesses and moved to the national stage in 1964, when he gave a well-received televised speech for Barry Goldwater. He ran for president beginning in 1968 and won in 1980. President Reagan was able to articulate his political vision in ways that appealed to his followers. Along with Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, Reagan is recognized as one of the most charismatic American presidents of the 20th century.

Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born in 1874. Although he is best known for being the prime minister of England during World War ll, he honed his communication skills as a war correspondent in World War l and crafted legislation for Parliament as a member. He was a powerful orator who used radio speeches to buoy the British people’s resilience during Germany’s World War II bombing of England.

Business examples of charismatic leadership

Lee Iacocca

Lido Anthony Iacocca was brought to Chrysler in the late 1970s to rescue the automaker from impending bankruptcy. Those who saw Iacocca “work the room,” ultimately persuading Congress to guarantee a huge loan to Chrysler, observed a charismatic leader working his magic.

Iacocca, an automotive executive with an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering, was not blessed with natural charisma, but he developed the talent. A memorable example of his charismatic style is his signature slogan, “If you can find a better car, buy it!”

Jack Welch

John Francis Welch was born in 1935 in Peabody, Massachusetts. He grew up playing sports and used lessons he learned as an athlete throughout his life. After college, Welch went to work at General Electric as a chemical engineer in 1960. He rose through the ranks to become the youngest CEO in GE’s history in 1981.

As a CEO, Welch went out of his way to develop positive relationships with GE employees and customers. He talked informally with workers, making them feel as if they might receive a note or a visit from him at any time. Although Welch didn’t hesitate to cut costs and lay off employees he viewed as poor performers, his leadership style engendered a sense of value and pride in the company.

Charismatic leadership quotations

Mother Teresa: “Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

Martin Luther King: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Pope John Paul ll: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Ronald Reagan: “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”

Winston Churchill: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Lee Iacocca: “Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can’t be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people.”

Jack Welsh: “The essence of competitiveness is liberated when we make people believe that what they think and do is important — and then get out of their way while they do it.”

Charismatic leadership style requirements

Common characteristics of leaders with charisma identified by Jay Alden Conger, leadership expert at the University of Southern California, and Henry Kravis, professor of leadership at Claremont McKenna College, include:

  • Sensitivity to their environment and the needs of their employees or followers
  • Articulate and visionary
  • Inclined toward personal risk taking
  • Adept at using unconventional behavior

Advantages and disadvantages of charismatic leadership

There are many advantages to this leadership style. Charismatic leaders are often a catalyst for social change. They are, however, not a fit for organizations that depend on rigid structures and processes to function.

Charismatic leadership pros

  • Charismatic leaders inspire people to work together for a common cause
  • Organizations are committed to a central mission
  • Management prioritizes learning from mistakes in an effort to succeed in their mission
  • Charismatic-led companies tend to be cohesive because their workers have a clear purpose

Charismatic leadership cons

  • Leaders may develop tunnel vision or arrogance, undoing their previous good deeds
  • Organizations can become dependent on charismatic leaders and may suffer if he or she retires, leaves the company, or dies suddenly
  • Charismatic leaders sometimes become unresponsive to their subordinates or constituents
  • These leaders may not learn from their mistakes, compounding them
  • Charismatic leaders may believe they are above the law, committing financial or ethical violations

Benefits of charismatic leadership

The world needs charismatic leaders because they fight for quality of life and a better world. Charismatic leaders have the courage of their convictions. They are willing to stand up to people who have a differing view of society or the organization.

Charismatic leaders tend to be able to see the gaps between what an organization delivers to its workers and what the workers need from the organization. They create visions that their supporters can readily see, and in return the supporters are motivated to contribute to a common goal.

Education Leadership Programs


Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., “What Is Charisma and Charismatic Leadership?,” Psychology Today

John C. Welch IV, “Insights on Charismatic Leadership from the Heroes and Villains”

Brian Evje, “3 Dangers of Charismatic Leadership,” Inc.

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