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While widely applied in social science and scholarship of religion, the term charisma is defined and used in many different ways, and thus needs to be used with care.  Ordinary dictionaries often distinguish two very broad meanings: (1) possessing a divine gift, and (2) having the charm to inspire devotion in the minds of other people.  The first definition immediately raises theological questions about what powers or special talents God gives to some people, and thus what particular religious tradition provides the answers.  The second definition raises a host of questions in social psychology about how one human being actually influences others, and longstanding debates about how the mass media confer celebrity status upon some public figures, including televangelists.

Within the social science of religion, there even exists a third definition, referring not to the charisma of an individual person, but distinguishing charismatic movements that heavily emphasize personal relationships, versus more traditional or bureaucratic organizations that minimize this emotional factor.   It was Max Weber who most influentially distinguished three ideal types of authority: charismatic, traditional and rational or bureaucratic.  He defined charisma thus:

The term “charisma” will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such, as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a “leader.” In primitive circumstances this peculiar kind of quality is thought of as resting on magical powers, whether of prophets, persons with a reputation for therapeutic or legal wisdom, leaders in the hunt, or heroes in war. How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from any ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally entirely indifferent for purposes of definition. What is alone important is how the individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his “followers” or “disciples.” (Weber 1922: 241-242)

Weber’s confidence in the clarity of the concept may have been misplaced, yet it certainly is the case that many religious traditions believe that some humans beings of the past had a close connection with a deity, whether Pythia the Oracle of Delphi, Moses, Mohammad,or self-proclaimed prophet Major Jealous “Father” Divine.  Traditional beliefs are actually rather complex, as for example I Corinthians 12 suggests that many or even all people may have divine gifts, but different ones:

8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;

9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;

10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:

11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.

Weber scholar Guenther Roth noted that Weber’s concept of charisma was both troublesome and provocative, and complained that it had been oversimplified in more recent years: “In popular usage, ‘charisma’ has lost any distinctive meaning and merely denotes a personal attribute, the glamor and attractiveness of persons and objects.  In contrast to this diffuseness, there has been a strong tendency in academic usage to reduce charisma to a relationship between national leaders and manipulated and organized masses” (Roth 1975:148).

Other social and behavioral scientists who have studied charisma might agree with Roth’s description of the concept’s evolution while arguing that it was justified.  For example, Donald McIntosh (1970) applied the Psychoanalytic thinking of Sigmund Freud to Weber’s typology of forms of authority, suggesting that God was a projection of the believer’s subconscious images of his or her own father.  The traditional form of authority reflected an early stage of childhood, while the charismatic form expressed the intensity of the Oedipal conflict, in which the son rises up to overthrow his father, seeking to take his place.  Today, when Psychoanalysis has lost a good deal of respect within social science, this analysis is still valuable as an example of how it may be worthwhile to analyze charisma as a psychological relationship between leaders and followers.

Peter Berger praised Weber’s abstract conceptualization, but noted that recent historical research had disagreed with Weber’s description of the specific social location of many prophets in the Hebrew religious tradition.  Berger reported that prophecy was more integrated into traditional forms of leadership than Weber had realized, but agreed that charisma was a force for change: “Charisma represents the sudden eruption into history of quite new forces, often linked to quite new ideas.  Far from being ‘reflections’ or ‘functions’ of already existing social processes, the charismatic forces powerfully act back upon the pre-existing processes and, indeed, initiate new processes of their own” (Berger 1963:949-950).

Thus, charisma may not need to operate from outside existing institutions, but regardless of its social location and the formal authority of the leaders who express it, represents novelty.  Werner Stark (1965) offered a similar analysis but focused on the Roman Catholic Church, arguing that charisma need not fade in the routinization process identified by Weber, but can constantly reawaken, even within the most well-established religious organizations.

A number of studies in social psychology and organizational behavior have attempted to determine which attributes of leaders connect in the minds of followers or observers, in a way that might define charisma empirically.  Much of the most systematic research concerns the qualities of business or political leaders, rather than religious leaders, but may provide insights of general applicability.

One questionnaire charisma scale covered a wide range of ways in which corporation leaders may attract unusual respect from their employees (Agle et al 2006), which factor analysis mapped onto five dimensions: (1) dynamic leadership, (2) exemplary leadership that sets a good and trustworthy example, (3) personal leadership that cares for the well-being of employees, (4) leader expectations for high performance by employees, and (5) leader willingness to take risks.  But one of the specific items heavily weighted on the dynamic leadership dimension was “charismatic,” so that dimension is a more focused measure, containing these other items describing a leader:

  • is dynamic
  • has the ability to excite a group of people
  • when communicating, drives to motivate with every word, story, and inflection
  • communicates an exciting vision of the future of the organization
  • paints an exciting picture of the future of the organization

A somewhat similar study (Conger and Kanungo 1994) identified six factors related to charisma: (1) articulation of a vision, (2) sensitivity to conditions in the organization’s environment, (3) unconventional behavior, (4) willingness to take personal risks, (5) sensitivity to member needs, and (6) does not maintain the status quo.  The items in the first factor describe a charismatic leader as:

  • exciting public speaker
  • appears to be a skillful performer when presenting to a group
  • inspirational, able to motivate by articulating effectively the importance of what organizational members are doing
  • has vision, often brings up ideas about possibilities for the future
  • provides inspiring strategic and organizational goals
  • constantly generates new ideas for the future of the organization

Influential theorist Edward Shils (1965: 201) argued that charisma is by no means limited to religion and that Weber’s conceptualizations were far too narrow, even through he had extensively considered secular manifestations of it.  For Shils, any person, institution or aspect of culture is charismatic if it represents “some very central feature of man’s existence and the cosmos in which he lives.” Thus it is appropriate to apply the term widely, if selectively: “The person who through sensitivity, cultivated or disciplined by practice and experience, by rationally controlled observation and analysis, by intuitive penetration, or by artistic disclosure, reaches or is believed to have attained contact with that ‘vital layer’ of reality is, by virtue of that contact, a charismatic person.”

More recently, Robert J. House (1996) has developed a theory of charisma as value-based leader behavior, rather compatible with the perspective of Shils, but more activist in quality.  By brightly reflecting shared human values, a leader represents some central features of human existence, chiefly our hopes and goals, what Shils would indeed have recognized as values.  But for House, a leader does not merely represent a valued goal, but promotes effective means to achieve it.  In collaboration with many other researchers, House has offered a rather complex system of theoretical concepts connected to charismatic leadership, with at least some evidence of their plausibility (House, Spangler and Woycke 1991; Shamir, House and Arthur 1993).

Yet this heavy focus on individual leaders did not invalidate alternative definitions of charisma, and social scientists of religion continued also to find value in Weber’s classification of some organizations as charismatic in structure, contrasting with others that are more traditional or rational (Nelson 1993).  This diversity of approaches implies that we are free to select the one best suited for our own research project, but should be very clear in our publications to offer both a formal definition of charisma as we use the term, and citation of scholarly literature that provides a solid background of theory.


Agle, Bradley R., Nandu J. Nagarajan, Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, and Dhinu Srinivasan.  2006.  “Does CEO Charisma Matter?  An Empirical Analysis of the Relationships among Organizational Performance, Environmental Uncertainty, and Top Management Team Perceptions of CEO Charisma,” The Academy of Management Journal 49(1): 161-174.

Berger, Peter.  1963. “Charisma and Religious Innovation: The Social Location of Israelite Prophecy,” American Sociological Review 28(6): 940-950.

Conger, Jay A., and Rabindra N. Kanungo.  1994.  “Charismatic Leadership in Organizations: Perceived Behavioral Attributes and Their Measurement,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 15(5):439-452.

House, Robert J.  1996.  “Path-Goal Theory of Leadership: Lessons, Legacy, and a Reformulated Theory,” Leadership Quarterly 7(3): 323-352.

House, Robert J., William D. Spangler and James Woycke.  1991.  “Personality and Charisma in the U.S. Presidency: A Psychological Theory of Leader Effectiveness,” Administrative Science Quarterly 36(3): 364-396.

McIntosh, Donald.  1970.  “Weber and Freud: On the Nature and Sources of Authority,” American Sociological Review 35(5): 901-911.

Nelson, Reed E.  1993.  “Authority, Organization, and Societal Context in Multinational Churches,” Administrative Science Quarterly 38(4): 653-682.

Roth, Guenther.  1975  “Socio-Historical Model and Developmental Theory: Charismatic Community, Charisma of Reason and the Counterculture,” American Sociological Review 40(2): 148-157.

Shils, Edward.  1965.  “Charisma, Order, and Status,” American Sociological Review 30(2): 199-213.

Shamir, Boas, Robert J. House and Michael B. Arthur.  1993.  “The Motivational Effects of Charismatic Leadership: A Self-Concept Based Theory,” Organization Science 4(4): 577-594.

Stark, Werner.  1965.  “The Routinization of Charisma: A Consideration of Catholicism,” Sociological Analysis 26(4):203-211.

Weber, Max.  1922.  Economy and Society.  Berkeley: University of California Press (1978).

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