🔒 From the FT: The allure — and danger — of the charismatic leader

Columnist Jemima Kelly, from our partners at the Financial Times, speaks on the phenomenon of the charismatic leader. From Donald Trump to Elizabeth Holmes, it is worth examining the driving power behind a cult of personality

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By Jemima Kelly

Give someone a list of political leaders and ask which of them have charisma and which don’t, and you will almost always get the same answers. Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Donald Trump? Albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it’s a yes. Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Kamala Harris, Ron DeSantis? An emphatic no. 

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Nailing down exactly what it means, though, doesn’t seem quite so straightforward. What does someone in possession of charisma actually have? Google suggests it is a “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others”. Some people talk about “star quality” or “the it factor”. One colleague suggested: “It’s just BDE, isn’t it?” (Look it up.)

The reason charisma is so tricky to explain is because being inexplicable is in its very nature: by definition intangible, the charismatic aura compels you to look at, be near to or — most consequentially — follow the person who holds it. And though certain tricks can be deployed to help build it, the truly charismatic individual has a je ne sais quoi that seems innate and particular.

In the New Testament, St Paul used the Greek word to mean various extraordinary powers given to Christians by the Holy Spirit, such as “the grace of healing”, “prophecy” and “the working of miracles”. 

But it was German sociologist Max Weber who first used the term outside the Christian context in the early 20th century. “He was trying to find patterns for the kind of force that he thought was necessary in politics, to get beyond a broken political system and break the logjam of German democracy,” Tom Wright, professor of rhetoric at Sussex University, tells me.

Weber had noticed that several world traditions had a word to describe a power — mystic or seemingly magical — that extraordinary people could use to influence or inspire others. As well as the Christian idea of charisma, the Native American Haudenosaunee people had the word orenda; in Oceanic philosophy, there was mana. Weber believed this notion existed in a secular western context, too, but was not being harnessed as the “specifically creative revolutionary force of history” that it could be.

Weber argued that “legitimate authority” is derived from three different sources. The first, “traditional authority”, comes from the conservative sense that things should be done as they always have been. The second, “rational-legal authority”, is rules-based, deriving from our sense of being logical, reason-based beings who want things done according to some kind of system.

But the third comes from what Weber was now calling charisma: “A certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities”. 

Silicon Valley’s idea of the charismatic leader isn’t quite the same as the political world’s — to watch fired-then-rehired OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman speak on stage is not to be blown away by sheer star quality or slick charm. And yet, more than 95 per cent of the company’s employees threatened to quit if the board of directors that had just fired Altman did not reinstate him, with many tweeting in cult-like fashion: “OpenAI is nothing without its people.” 

Indeed, many of tech’s most famous “charismatic leaders” — Sam Bankman-Fried, Elizabeth Holmes, Elon Musk — lack the kind of stage presence or easy confidence that we might expect a charismatic person to have in politics or our personal lives. The cult of personality that surrounds them, though, inspires devotion just as fervent as that of any smooth-talking politician, if not more so.

Charisma can be highly seductive: humans seem to have a libidinal urge to believe in a higher power and leaders can inspire us to follow them if they possess anything resembling that. But we must exert caution: while Weber’s first two sources of authority are ones that appeal largely to the head or the intellect, charismatic authority has a visceral, primal appeal to what really drives us: our emotions, our instincts and our “hearts”.

That’s what makes it both so potent and so dangerous. Charisma can be used for good, but it can also be used to manipulate and to deceive — it has often been linked to narcissistic personality types, and even psychopaths.

And because charismatic authority is so powerful, it can override the other kinds of authority and lead us to suspend our rational, thinking brains. Look at the way that Trump managed to convince one in three Americans that the 2020 election had been stolen to see the more pernicious side of this type of authority in action. I should note that the Zoroastrian religion’s name for the cult of charisma is, rather delightfully, Maga.

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