Charismatic authority is a type of authority that is based on the personal attributes of an individual leader, such as heroism, leadership qualities, and having a dynamic personality, which make the individual appear superhuman to their followers.
According to Weber, charismatic authority is the simplest and most primitive form of authority. Its only appeal is the persona of the individual exercising it, and it wanes with the decline of the wielder.
The other two forms of authority (traditional and rational-legal) represent successive stages in the progressive development of authority, with each being more stable and desirable than the one preceding it.
There are both good and evil examples of charismatic authority. For example, Nelson Mandela and Volodymyr Zelensky used their charisma to rally their people against oppression. Others, like Lenin and Stalin, used their charismatic authority to enact the oppression.
Charismatic Authority Definition
The phrase charismatic authority is made up of two component words – charisma, and authority, each of which merits a brief discussion before moving forward.
The word charisma derives etymologically from the Greek word Kharis which means “grace” and “that which is freely given”. By the 2nd century CE, the word made its way into Christian theology as Charism.
Until the medieval era, it was used solely in a Biblical context, to describe the gift of power and authority bestowed upon a mortal being by the almighty God (Weber, 2012).
Therefore, the religious, or at least, the divine or the supernatural is an integral component of charisma as outlined by Weber.
Authority in the Weberian sense can be conceived of as dominance, albeit bound within legitimacy.
Whereas dominance could be legitimate or illegitimate, authority in the Weberian sense is the legitimate relation of domination and subordination between the leader and the follower.
Authority is also different from power, in that authority demands subordination without the explicit use of force. (Kendall, et. al., 2016)
Examples of Charismatic Authority
1. Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ’s life was extraordinary, as is to be expected of the founder of the world’s largest religion.
While a considerable body of myth, fable, and hagiography has accumulated around the biography of Jesus over the last two millennia, what can be said with certainty about the historical Jesus was that he had a dynamic personality and leadership qualities that inspired fierce loyalty among those who came in contact with him.
This helped him acquire a small but devoted following in Jerusalem on account of his personal traits that, even in his lifetime, led to him being perceived as being divine or superhuman.
His trial and crucifixion, demonstrating an extraordinary fortitude in the face of pain and suffering, only served to cement this perception of Jesus’ divine nature among his followers.
While Christianity became organized and institutionalized within a century of Christ’s death, it was the charismatic authority of its founder that held the fledgling Christian community together in its nascent years. This laid the foundation for the worldwide institution it was to become later.
Similar lessons can be drawn from the lives of other founders of major world religions.
For instance, the Prophet Muhammad similarly led by example, leading his small band of devoted followers on the strength of his charismatic authority, that, even in his lifetime was perceived as being of divine origin.
2. Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte ( 1769 – 1821) was a French military leader who is regarded as one of the foremost generals and empire builders in history.
The speed with which Napoleon rose to prominence and brought to submission much of Europe was testament to command an army of loyal followers.
The empire Napoleon built collapsed soon after him, underscoring the fact that the authority he wielded was not based on tradition, such as royal lineage, or on rational-legal institutional structures capable of outlasting the demise of one individual, but purely on his own personal charisma.
3. Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler is probably the most notorious public figure in history, but a figure who embodies the power of charismatic authority.
During his meteoric rise in inter-war Germany, Hitler rose from near anonymity as an ordinary soldier to command the impassioned loyalty of a section of the German population. He achieved this through the force of his personality.
Hitler presented himself as the embodiment of wounded German national pride itself, transcending his human frailties and shortcomings, promising to deliver his followers a vision of timeless racial and ethnic glory.
Similarly, Hitler’s ally and ideological comrade-in-arms, Benito Mussolini built a power base in Italy through his charismatic authority.
4. Charles de Gaulle
On the opposite side of ideological and political divide from Hitler and Mussolini stood another leader who owed his political rise to his charismatic authority – General Charles de Gaulle.
A French officer who led France against the Nazis, and later became the President of France and one of its most popular leaders.
De Gaulle’s popularity in France was drawn from his heroic persona as a highly decorated French soldier who was grievously wounded several times in battle, spent several years in prison as a German prisoner of war, and yet each time returned to lead France, bestowing upon him a superhuman aura.
5. Lenin & Stalin
Both Lenin and Stalin were leaders of the Soviet Union who were able to command vast, almost unrestrained power over the lives of millions through the force of their charismatic personalities.
The product of revolutions that upstaged the traditional authority wielded by Russian Tsars, Lenin and Stalin, in theory, intended to replace it with a rational-legal form of authority identified in Communist thought as the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In practice however, Communist Russia came to be ruled for the most part, not through rational-legal institutions, but the personal whims of its dictators.
Wolfenstein (2016) in his book Revolutionary Personalities: Lenin, Trotsky, and Gandhi makes the argument that revolutionaries are, as a rule, marked by certain personality traits such as courage, industry, drive, and confidence, that allows them to command the loyalty of the masses.
6. Nietzschean Ubermensch
Stepping away from specific, individual-centric instances, we now look at more abstract, philosophical formulations of the concept of charismatic authority
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900) outlined the highly influential concept of the Ubermensch, roughly translated as a Superman, which became a moral template for the glut of charismatic leaders in the first half of the twentieth century, as seen from the preceding examples.
Nietzche’s Ubermensch was a man of authority and conviction who rises above the concerns of morality, egalitarianism, and herd mentality to become the master of his own fate.
Nietzche conceived of the ubermensch as an artist-tyrant or Caesar with the soul of Christ, which is to say, a person endowed with the power of a tyrant, the perceptive sentimentality of an artist and the kindness of Christ (Desmond, 1999).
7. Plato’s Philosopher King
The Greek philosopher Plato, in his much celebrated work The Republic argues that the ideal form of political organization of human society is one in which society is ruled by a philosopher-king.
Plato’s ideal philosopher-king is an absolute monarch who combines the ability to decisively wield power with the perceptive knowledge of philosophy.
Plato’s philosopher-king straddled both the secular and the religious domain. Plato’s ideas were criticized by Aristotle who advocated greater democratic participation of ordinary citizens and diminishing of the absolute power of the monarch, and separation of religion and the state (Melamed, 2003).
8. Randian Heroes
Ayn Rand was an American philosopher known widely for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
Rand’s philosophy is characterized as objectivism, its central tenet being that man is a heroic being who is bound by no other ties except the attainment of his own happiness and the pursuit of productive activities.
The protagonists of Rand’s novels were strong, independent men who pursued their own path against all odds, much like Nietzschean Ubermensch.
9. Anti-colonial Leaders (e.g Nelson Mandela)
The struggle against colonialism in much of Africa and Asia was led by figures who were able to command the support of the masses against the power of the colonial state.
Leaders such a Gandh in India, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Sukarno in Indonesia, all commanded the undying loyalty of millions, solely on the strength of their charismatic personality.
Not coincidentally, such leaders were often raised to the status of superhuman, or nearly divine. For instance, the honorific “Mahatma” meaning “the great soul” is often appended before Gandhi, to underscore the extraordinary, semi-divine veneration that his supporters held him in.
10. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi
Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were charismatic leaders who espoused ideologically similar ideals of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism in their respective nations, Iraq and Libya.
Both came to power through military coups at roughly the same time in the early 1970s. Their militant and revolutionary activities in the lead up to formally seizing power created around them an aura of extraordinary heroism and courage.
For instance, as 22-year old, Saddam Hussein took part in a failed assassination attmept on the then Iraqi Prime Minister, Abd’al Karim Qasim in 1959. To escape retaliation, Saddam along with his co-conspirators escaped through the desert into Syria.
Even though the asssaniation attempt failed, the story of Saddam’s involvement in the attempted killing, and of the long trek across the desert into Syria soon acquired mythical proportions, bestowing on Saddam’s public persona a heroism that was to become the foundation of his charismatic authority.
Similarly Muammar Qaddafi of Libya ruled through a cult of personality. In the words of Prof. Raymond Hinnebusch of the University of St. Andrews, Qaddafi was “the most exemplary contemporary case of Weber’s charismatic authority” (Hinnebusch, 1984).
The base of this charismatic authority, according to Hinnebusch, was Qaddafi’s larger-than-life image as a rebel against western imperialism, a nationalist hero, and a protector of Libyan interests.
Acharya Rajneesh, commonly known by the name Osho was an Indian godman who led a mystic cult known after him and advocated for complete freedom from restrictions, authority, and institutional control.
Osho became controversial for his views both in India and the United States, and his organization had frequent run-ins with the law.
Despite this, Osho’s spiritual movement gained remarkable popularity throughout the world starting with the 1970s, prompting wide academic, literary, and pop-cultural coverage. He was the subject of the popular Netflix docuseries Wild, Wild, Country (2018).
According to sociologist Hugh B. Urban, Osho was a classic manifestation of Weber’s charismatic figure, possessing “extraordinary supernatural power or grace, which was irrational and affective” (Urban, 1996).
Like Weber’s charismatic authority (and Nietzche’s ubermensch), Osho rejected all forms of authority and moral obligations, and advocated allowing unrestrained freedom to the mind to follow its own course.
12. Haile Selassie and the Rastafarians
Haile Selassie (1892 – 1975) was the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, and a key figure in Ethiopian and African history.
His attempts at modernizing Ethiopia, and his role as a leader of Ethiopia’s anti-imperial struggle led to his being valorized in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
Most notably, the Rastfarians, a new religious movement that arose among the African diaspora in Jamaica consider Haile Selaissie a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and a promised Biblical Messiah or “Jah”.
The movement advocates a return of the African diaspora to the promised land of Africa, which is termed “zion”.
The Jamaican Reggae singer Bob Marley was a prominent Rastafarian. His son Damian Marley has composed popular Rastafarian songs in the 21st century, such as Road to Zion.
13. Jim Jones and the People’s Temple
Jim Jones (1931 – 1978) was an American preacher who advocated a form of Christian socialism, mixing elements of Christianity with socialism to devise a new religious movement called the People’s Temple.
At its peak, the movement had over 3000 members, and Jones exercised control over them through his charismatic personality.
Jones reportedly had a fascination with creating his own commune and exercising complete control over this society. To this end, he founded his own city, called Jonestown, in Guyana.
The total control that Jones exercised over his followers became evident when he ordered a ritual of mass suicide among his disciples, leading to 909 deaths, including that of Jones himself.
Other Figures Worth Considering:
- Fidel Castro
- Winston Churchill
- Volodymyr Zelensky
The German sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920) classified authority in society as being of three types – charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. Charismatic authority is the version that can be defined as the legitimate domination that a person has over others on account of his or her individual personality traits which are perceived as being divine or superhuman by their followers.
Examples of charismatic authority figures include Nelson Mandela, Charles de Gaulle, Fidel Castro, and Napoleon Bonaparte. While some, like Mandela, were forced for good, many were also forces that used their charisma to compel hordes of people to discriminate, fight in wars of aggression, and oppress others.
Desmond, W. (1999). “Caesar with the soul of Christ”: Nietzche’s highest impossibility. Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, 61(1), 27–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40888655
Hinnebusch, R. A. (1984). Charisma, revolution, and state formation: Qaddafi and Libya. Third World Quarterly. 6 (1), 59–73. doi:10.1080/01436598408419755
Kendall, D., Murray, J.L. and Linden, R.(2016) Sociology in our time (2nd ed.) Nelson Cengage.
Melamed, A. (2003). The Philosopher King in medieval and Renaissance Jewish political thought. State University of New York Press
Weber, M. (2012) The theory of social and economic organization Martino Fine Books (originally published in 1920)
Wolfenstein, E.V. ( 2016) Revolutionary Personality: Lenin, Trotsky, Gandhi Princeton University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.