Trait Approach - Charisma has been studied as a trait (Weber, 1947) and as a set of behaviors (House, 1977; House & Baetz, 1979; House & Howell, 1992). The trait approach to charisma looks at qualities such as being visionary, energetic, unconventional, and exemplary (Bass, 1985; Conger, 1989; Conger & Kanungo, 1988; Harvey, 2001; House, 1977). Charismatic leaders are also thought to possess outstanding rhetorical ability (Harvey 2001: 253). 

Theatrical Approach - Most recently charisma is being rethorized as theatrical. What are the behaviors that leaders and followers do to enact attributions of charisma for various audiences (internal and external to the firm)?  For example, Howell and Frost (1989) began to study the ways verbal and non-verbal behaviors can be acted out to lead follows to attribute more or less charisma to leaders.  They trained actors in a lab experiment to verbally and nonverbally exhibit behaviors identified as charismatic versus structuring and considerate (See Behavioral Leadership Study Guide). Charismatic leaders voiced overarching goals, communicated high performance expectations to followers, and exhibited confidences in follower ability to meet those high expectations (Howell & Frost, 1989: 251). In their charismatic character roles, actors were coached to use nonverbal cues such as extended eye contact, using vocal variety, speaking in a relaxed posture, and using animated facial expression. The more structuring and considerate leaderly-characters said the same lines buy with less dynamic non0verbal cues. 

Impression Management - Charisma was revisited to look at its impression management behaviors or what House (1977) had called "image building." Studies by Bass (1985, 1988, 1990) suggest that charismatic leaders engage in impression management to construct an image of competence, increased subordinate competence and subordinate-faith in them as leaders.  Bass argues that charismatic leadership is less likely to emerge or flourish in a transactional (bureaucratic) culture, and is more likely within a transformational culture (See X dimension of XYZ In the Box Leadership Model). Here, we want to explore ways in which leaders act charismatic, and co-create organizational scripts in which promote such attributions by a variety of audiences (inside and outside the firm).

A Theatrical Perspective on Charismatic Leadership - Charisma is dramaturgical, a theatrical role played by a leader that is jointly constructed with followers, as well as by suppliers, competitors, and customers (Gardner & Alvolio, 1998). Gardner and Alvolio's (1998) dramaturgical perspective is that charismatic leadership is an impression management process enacted theatrically in acts of framing, scripting, staging, and  performing.

Framing - a quality of communication that causes others to accept one meaning over another.  (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996:xi). For more on framing see Goffman (1959, 1967, 1974). Goffman (1974), for example, describes frames as being our conceptual or cognitive views of particular situations. Leaders with their followers socially construct reality through framing techniques Conger (1991) says include presenting the organization's purpose and mission in ways the energizes followers. For example, Steven Jobs mission for his computer company, NEXT, is to "revolutionize higher education" but just "build computers" like  his competitor IBM. Gardner and Alvolio (1998) say that in framing their vision, charismatic leaders choose words that amplify audience values, stress importance and efficacy, and if necessary, will denigrate their opponents (e.g. competitors). Erving Goffman portrays everyday interactions as strategic encounters in which one is attempting to "sell" a particular self-image. This also extends to the charismatic leader framing a definition of the organizational situation and vision.

Scripting - the development of a set of directions that define the scene, specifies the actors to be cast, outlines expected behavior, and cues when events occur and actors enter and exit (Benford & Hung, 1992; Gardner & Alvolio, 1998). Scripts supply the collective definition of the situation (plot and the dialog in Aristotle's terms).  Scripting is what leaders do to direct and setup the scene before a performance. In McDonaldization, scripts are written to integrate activities in a very repetitive and integrated way, with few spaces for improv (See Image Theatre study guide; McDonaldization Study Guide). The point is leaders can exercise control through theatrics not only by performance, but by the scripting and rescripting of cast member dialog and by changing the plot of the situation. The pre-performance and off-stage aspects of leadership is casting roles, scripting dialog, rehearsing, and direction the action. The charismatic leader cast themselves in the role of the visionary leading the assembled characters in pursuit of their vision, while not falling victim to the trickery and schemes of their antagonists. The charismatic leader's scripted plot is to save the day, to rescue people from antagonists. Gardner and Alvolio (1998) include dialog and directing as aspects of scripting: 

Dialog - Aristotle defined dialog (or diction) as  the verbal and non-verbal exchanges among characters. Dialog is a resource to express character, plot, and theme of the charismatic leader script. The dialog of Martin Luther Kin has a pace, rhythm, repetition and style that leadership researchers have identified as charismatic (Conger, 1991). "Let freedom ring." 

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. 

Another example: General Douglas MacArthur would prepare for a guest, or a group by memorizing every fact he could about topics they were supposed to know as expert. In his flamboyance style, he would then dazzle them with his expertise and breadth of knowledge. MacArthur worked on his dialog, both in the office and on the floor of the Senate, to give a charismatic performance, often speaking his dialog from memory. 

Directing  - Leaders are directors for performances. This can include rehearsals by leader and staff to give desired impressions. After September 11th, President George Bush, rehearsed with speech writers and coaches to give a more heroic leaderly image to his public. Karen Hughes, his
Director of Communication was able to work with Bush to rescript his role as leader to deal with the changed expectations of followers, who wanted a confident and dynamic, yet stern and forceful leader.  Changes in direction included using props in speeches (President George W. Bush grabbed a bullhorn to gave support to search and rescue workers who were looking for survivors at the World Trade Center site (September 14).) It included posing his facial features in a more determined look, with the same determination of a Churchill or FDR (presidents who had rallied their followers in times of national crisis) [See Antenarrative Framing of President Bush in Post-11].

Staging - charismatic leaders stage-manage their performances. General George Patton always his pearl-handled pistols. General Douglas MacArthur wore strangely formed hats and a long pipe. Both wore uniforms that were dramatic in their stage-effect. Mahatma
Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Mother Teresa are also often called charismatic. What did they have in common? Not just passion for a cause, commitment, vision, energy, courage; they all have dramatic stage-effect. General MacArthur would get himself photographed on the front lines, and sometimes ahead of those lines, to be an charismatic inspiration to his troop.  Gandhi wore clothing he knit himself as an inspiration and example to others to defy British colonial rule; at that time Gandhi and his followers were prohibited from manufacturing their own cotton clothing

Performing - Show time. The charismatic leader takes the stage to enact scripted dialog and set up the frame to construct their charismatic character. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi are examples of exemplifying trustworthiness and moral responsibility; to be examples to their followers of the non-violent characters they expected followers to imitate. Gandhi's fasting and dress were examples of the self-sacrifice and discipline it takes to change the world.  Charismatic leaders sometimes engage in self-promotion to appear competent, powerful, determined, innovative, etc. They may also perform in ways that promotes their vision of the future, and promote the organization or cause they lead/serve/embody. Performing according to Goffman (1967) also includes "facework." Facework can be the defensive protection of self-image, as in saving-face. This includes giving accounts that control the damaging of scandals.  It can also be the personalization of a cause.  Public face and personal face relate to leadership, saving-face after a faux pas. 

The point of this elaboration is that leadership is theatrical. In the case of charismatic leaders, there is framing, scripting, staging and performing.  This relates to two aspects of leading. First, there is performing, learning the dialog, the verbal and non-verbal language and poetics of leadership. Second, there is directing, writing and editing the script, casting the characters, setting the stage to create the charismatic effect. 

Harvey's (2001) study of Steve Job's charisma at Apple Corporation raises several important points.Jobs uses exemplification (embodying the ideal of being morally responsible, committed to the cause, and taking risks) and self-promotion (and less often organization-promotion) to enact his characterization of charismatic leadership (Harvey, 2001: 257). When leaders cast themselves in the charismatic roles and their followers are cast as allies in pursuit of the charismatic leaders vision (Gardner & Alvolio, 1998: 42; Harvey, 2001: 254), there are three contradictions. 

A min point is that charisma is a co-constructed theatrical event. It takes casting of both leaders and follower roles, antagonists and protagonists (e.g. competitors who are enemies) to bring off the charismatic drama. 


Charismatic Leadership: Claiming special knowledge and demanding unquestioning obedience with power and privilege. Leadership may consist of one individual or a small group of core leaders. Charismatic leadership has its dark side.

  1. Problems
  2. Charisma and Cults


References for your reading pleasure. 

Theatrics of Charisma



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