This post is an excerpt from an essay called All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision
Charismatic Leadership This style (or mode) of leadership is difficult to define because it involves what Carl Gustav Jung called participation mystique, the amorphous area of psychological co-participation that involves intense relationships between leaders and followers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the leader works to hold in check his charismatic energies and remains respectful of the autonomy, intelligence and self-power of her followers. Charismatic leadership can be a potent antidote to organizational malaise (and perhaps corruption) and can help set things right again under the best of circumstances.
This style of leadership is often the result of the natural personal attributes of the leader(s) and can be seen as a mode of interaction within the overall spectrum of transformational leadership. Charisma can be powerful indeed when building up individuals and championing a bold, new vision.
But, charisma can also be a destructive force in the individuals and groups who possess it and for those who have the misfortunate to be crushed underneath its weight.
The problem with charismatic leadership is that it often becomes “all about me.” If the leader is set up as the end-all-be-all, then there is little room for others to grow or to become leaders in their own right. In addition, followers may eventually give up their own critical thinking capacities by taking in a totalistic ideology that the charismatic leader (or charismatic group) has inculcated in them. This problem has surfaced time and again in businesses, public institutions spiritual/religious organizations, political campaigns and organizations, the circle of adoration around public intellectuals, and even academia, where teachers can exert a powerful influence over young minds.
To learn more about this phenomenon, I would recommend a book called “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power” by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. This book is not against spiritual teachings or teachers (nor am I, having taken my Buddhist vows in the late 1990s and attended various retreats in that general vein). The guru/disciple model simply provides a clear foundation for the argument that man must be free from undue influence if humanity is to further evolve.
In the view of the authors, the inherently authoritarian setup of the traditional guru/disciple model best exemplifies the dark and bright sides of authority itself. The second half of the book explores in a clear and lucid way our “inner authoritarian” -the small child in each of us that wants a surrogate parent to take care of us and to think for us, so that we can feel stable and secure in a ceaselessly changing, sometimes frightening world.
Other books explore similar themes, both secular and spiritual, with a balanced outlook that respects frameworks, ideologies, paradigms and power structures alongside a critical inquiry into the limits of giving up one’s autonomy to another person or belief system. Two books by Jack Kornfield come to mind: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, and A Path With Heart. Both of these books are considered classics in the fields of meditation and spiritual psychology.
In the secular realm, one of the most important books on the subject was published back in 1961 and is still relevant. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism was written by Robert Jay Lifton and explores the “brainwashing” techniques used by the Chinese Communists against their own people and western captives. This book systematically examines the various techniques used by people and groups to subjugate the critical thinking capacities of captives and converts, including “thought-terminating cliches” which are phrases used to shut down a conversation or free thought.
For more on the subject of freeing the self from authoritarianism, the reader may wish to check out “Escape from Freedom” by Eric Fromm. This book is drier, but a really exciting read intellectually as it takes the reader further into the existential and philosophical dimensions of breaking free to a life of authenticity.