Does a 1976 theory on Charismatic Leadership still hold in today’s world?

by | Sep 11, 2020

The world has seen a massive cultural shift in how leadership is viewed today compared to the last century and beyond. Command and Control, Top-Down, and hierarchical management styles are becoming extinct. Organizational [SN1] leadership is evolving into Servant, Spiritual, and Employee-focus styles of leadership. There are plenty of theories and methods documented, each one providing some insight into why leaders are who they are and how to explain their success. In an excerpt from Leadership: The Cutting Edge by J. G. Hunt and L. Larson from 1977, and Robert J. House’s paper A 1976 Theory of Charismatic Leadership, we will see if their thoughts on the charismatic behaviour of successful leaders still holds today.

Having the right charisma as a team leader is more than giving the “Ra-Ra” speech or throwing pizza lunches to keep people motivated. There needs to be that internal feeling everyone has with leadership, and it is not in the stomach.

Robert J. House provides some “charismatic effects” that happen with followers:

  • Following based on emotion not reporting structure

  • Aspire and emulate the leader’s behaviours, goals and values

  • Self-confidence

  • Effective Change Agent

Reviewing these effects, we can see that they are what is expected in today’s world, just as they were all those years ago. These outputs will create an environment where followers will do what they can for their leader, as it is more about the motivation and complimentary views that drive them.

The theory has seven propositions to drive out the conclusions. These areas of focus incorporate the behaviours needed for one to be defined as a Charismatic leader, which drives out the listed effects as an output of the followers. 

Proposition 1

The focus of this proposition is that the typical characteristics are “dominance, self-confidence, need for influence and strong conviction in the moral righteousness of their beliefs.”

It is worth noting that there already seems to be a conflict with what is expected of leaders today. Or it could very well be that the wording is misleading. The two traits that seem to be off are dominance and the need for influence. In today’s world, leaders need to be in the “trenches” with their teams and not sit in an“Ivory Tower” giving orders.

Proposition 2

The follower’s perception of the leader will determine how they will conduct themselves in the workplace. This proposition is focused on the attitudes and reactions that a leader displays during different events that occur in the work environment.

This view still holds today. Seeing how leaders react to situations will impact how individuals will respond in similar situations. A leader who is in “the trenches,” working alongside their followers, focused on the task at hand, and looking out for the best interests of the team creates a positive environment. A key indicator of this is the attrition rate. If the rate is high, perhaps the leadership is not understanding the author’s “Favourable perceptions” of leadership as “attractive, nurturant, successful, or competent.”

Proposition 3

Leaders create the impression of competence and success.

While this holds today, the word impression may be misleading. In defense of the proposition, the author discusses a leader’s ability to take action within the workplace in a favourable manner. The word ‘impression’ though, could create a sense that the leader is “faking it,” showing the right behaviours on the outside, yet somehow not possessing  these expected outcomes. A little further into the defense, it is explained that the leader needs to prove their competence, which will provide the impression. In the end, leaders must indeed prove they can lead before a team can genuinely follow them. In this case, perhaps the word ‘impression’ is the right term after all –  there are positive and negative views that will impact the leader. iI is all on how they treat their environment.

Proposition 4

Leaders that have the charismatic effects listed above will be more effective in articulating ideological goals.

The article provides examples of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi to give the context of ideological goals. In the workplace, this proposition falls under the ability to motivate teams to complete tasks, all while displaying the work ethic that they want others to follow, getting feedback, and discussing with the team how to improve. A lot of workplace leaders use the term “work-life balance” as an ideological goal; unfortunately, for most, it is more about saying the phrase than ensuring it happens. This view bleeds a little into Proposition 3 with the actions to give the impression. Today leaders tend to see salary as a goal for employees when countless studies show otherwise. Providing the right motivation on an emotional level far outweighs the monetary.

Proposition 5

Leaders have confidence in followers in meeting communicated high expectations.

Communicating goals is one thing, showing confidence and providing the support to achieve them is another. Measurements, dashboards, quotas are just a few goals that most organizations will use with employees. Another is giving “Stretch Assignments” to individuals or teams for them to complete. What will get a leader to the charismatic effects listed above is to provide the support necessary and the confidence that the assignment will be completed. This behaviour is the expected level of coaching for today’s world. Barking out orders is no way to motivate.

Proposition 6

Motivation

Without the right motivation, followers will not follow the leader. They may show up and do the tasks, yet they will not have the drive to do it for the leader. “I’m only in it for the paycheque,” or something similar can be heard in an emotionally unmotivated environment. True leaders with the right motivation will get their followers to jump out of bed in the morning to get going, instead of hitting snooze and dragging themselves out of bed.

Proposition 7

The leader must appeal to the follower.

If a leader does not have a charismatic effect with the previous behaviours and actions, then there is no emotional stake for the follower to stay with them.

Comparing this to the expectations of today’s leaders, aside from some wording changes, it’s apparent that the Charismatic Leader theory has some valid points that hold. Robert J. House even states that there is a need for more tests on the idea to confirm. What is detailed here is more observational.

Servant and Spiritual leaders in the workplace have the same characteristics as the Charismatic leader and can provide the leadership necessary for teams to achieve personal and professional success.

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