Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is a person who exudes energy, enthusiasm, and drive. He’s fun-loving (his legendary laugh has been described as a flock of Canadian geese on nitrous oxide), but has pursued his vision for Amazon with serious intensity and has demonstrated an ability to inspire his employees through the ups and downs of a rapidly growing company. Bezos is what we call a charismatic leader—that is, an enthusiastic, self-confident leader whose personality and actions influence people to behave in certain ways.
Several authors have attempted to identify personal characteristics of the charismatic leader. The most comprehensive analysis identified five such characteristics: they have a vision, the ability to articulate that vision, willingness to take risks to achieve that vision, sensitivity to both environmental constraints and follower needs, and behaviors that are out of the ordinary.
An increasing body of evidence shows impressive correlations between charismatic leadership and high performance and satisfaction among followers. Although one study found that charismatic CEOs had no impact on subsequent organizational performance, charisma is still believed to be a desirable leadership quality.
If charisma is desirable, can people learn to be charismatic leaders? Or are charismatic leaders born with their qualities? Although a small number of experts still think that charisma can’t be learned, most believe that individuals can be trained to exhibit charismatic behaviors. For example, researchers have succeeded in teaching undergraduate students to “be” charismatic. How? They were taught to articulate a far-reaching goal, communicate high performance expectations, exhibit confidence in the ability of subordinates to meet those expectations, and empathize with the needs of their subordinates; they learned to project a powerful, confident, and dynamic presence; and they practiced using a captivating and engaging voice tone.
The researchers also trained the student leaders to use charismatic nonverbal behaviors including leaning toward the follower when communicating, maintaining direct eye contact, and having a relaxed posture and animated facial expressions. In groups with these “trained” charismatic leaders, members had higher task performance, higher task adjustment, and better adjustment to the leader and to the group than did group members who worked in groups led by non-charismatic leaders.
One last thing we should say about charismatic leadership is that it may not always be necessary to achieve high levels of employee performance. It may be most appropriate when the follower’s task has an ideological purpose or when the environment involves a high degree of stress and uncertainty. This aspect may explain why, when charismatic leaders surface, it’s more likely to be in politics, religion, or wartime; or when a business firm is starting up or facing a survival crisis. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. used his charisma to bring about social equality through nonviolent means; and Steve Jobs achieved unwavering loyalty and commitment from Apple’s technical staff in the early 1980s by articulating a vision of personal computers that would dramatically change the way people lived.
Although the term vision is often linked with charismatic leadership, visionary leadership is different: it’s the ability to create and articulate a realistic, credible, and attractive vision of the future that improves upon the present situation. This vision, if properly selected and implemented, is so energizing that it “in effect jump-starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents, and resources to make it happen.”
An organization’s vision should offer clear and compelling imagery that taps into people’s emotions and inspires enthusiasm to pursue the organization’s goals. It should be able to generate possibilities that are inspirational and unique and offer new ways of doing things that are clearly better for the organization and its members. Visions that are clearly articulated and have powerful imagery are easily grasped and accepted. For instance, Michael Dell created a vision of a business that sells and delivers customized PCs directly to customers in less than a week. The late Mary Kay Ash’s vision of women as entrepreneurs selling products that improved their self-image gave impetus to her cosmetics company, Mary Kay Cosmetics. Learn more about effective leadership and how to handle various management related challenges in an organization only at LSBF.