There is a deep chasm between the popular perception of charisma and what sociologists conceptualised as charismatic leadership. In the popular sense charisma is interchangeable with charm. According to this perception any leader who is handsome or beautiful is ipso facto considered to be charismatic.
MISCONCEPTION OF CHARISMA
There is a deep chasm between the popular perception of charisma and what sociologists conceptualised as charismatic leadership. In the popular sense charisma is interchangeable with charm. According to this perception any leader who is handsome or beautiful is ipso facto considered to be charismatic. This could be the reason why Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, M. G. Ramachandran, Rajiv Gandhi, Jayalalitha, N.T. Rama Rao et al were considered charismatic. If the analogy were to be extended, quite a few film heroes and heroines could be considered charismatic - if only they had had a chance to prove their charisma as political leaders.
THE “SONIA GANDHI ERROR”?
Malcolm Gladwell calls the misconception of ‘charisma’, the “Warren Harding Error” (Blink, 2006. Penguin Books, New Delhi. p. 72). Warren Harding was elected president because his electors could not distinguish between charisma in its popular perception and charismatic leadership. The 29th US President (1921–1923) was tall, broad-shouldered and perfectly proportioned, had a bronzed complexion and a resonant masculine voice. Harding came to be described a ‘Roman’ for his good looks. He was affable and had an implacable desire to please. His father once told him that it was good he hadn’t been born a girl because, “You would be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no”. During his presidency, he busied himself with golf, poker and his mistresses while his cronies looted the exchequer ‘in a variety of creative ways’. Harding had the dubious distinction of being the second of ten ‘Worst Presidents’. Jay Tolson says that he was an ‘ineffectual and indecisive leader’ and his ‘claim to infamy rests on spectacular ineptitude’. (US News & World Report, February 16, 2007. Worst Presidents: Warren Harding, accessible from http://bit.ly/a3bRER).
The theory of ‘Charismatic Leadership’ evolved from ideas originally proposed by Max Weber (1864-1920) in his ‘The theory of social and economic organisations’. Weber, known as an economist and historian in his time may be said to be the father modern sociology. He was the first to use the word charisma to describe leadership that emerges in crisis situations. In Greek, the word Charisma means ‘divinely inspired gift’. Charismatic leadership is neither traditional nor based on formal authority but based on followers’ perception that the leader is gifted with exceptional qualities. A charismatic leader, as conceptualised by Weber is gifted with a radical vision that offers solutions to crisis situations. He attracts followers who believe in his vision. The followers experience success that makes them trust their leader’s vision as attainable. This makes them perceive the leader as extraordinary.
What then are the traits of a charismatic leader? Literature on leadership defines precisely the attributes, traits and behaviours of charismatic leaders. Thus charismatic leaders have a strong need for power, high self-confidence and conviction in their own beliefs and ideals and are able to influence the attitudes and behaviours of their followers.
But first a charismatic leader must have a vision that is both ennobling and appealing. He must be able to make his followers visualise the ennobling vision by expressive language and communication. He must be able to take exceptional personal risks and make self-sacrifices to attain the vision. He must consistently communicate his confidence in and high expectations from his followers. He must consistently ensure that both he and his followers observe role-modelling consistent with the vision. The leader must be able to build identification with the vision and finally he must be able to empower the followers to achieve the vision. [For more on the subject, see Yukl, Gary. 2002. Charismatic and Transformational Leadership, Chapter 9, Leadership in Organisations, Fifth Edition, Pearson Education, Delhi.]
So what is the ennobling vision that a charismatic leader should have and communicated to the people of a newly liberated nation?
Why, it is the vision of a strong and resurgent nation, for the building of which the leader takes personal risks and makes sacrifices.
A strong and resurgent nation, the concept of which every citizen identifies with and believes in.
In order to be labelled charismatic did any of our leaders since independence believe in and communicate such ennobling vision?
Did any of them take personal risks and make sacrifices for realising such ennobling vision?
Does every citizen identify with and believe in such ennobling vision?
Not since Mahatma Gandhi did we see a leader emerge in the Congress party who could be truly labelled charismatic. But not only was Mahatma Gandhi disowned by his party as soon as it tasted the spoils of power but it also did not allow the emergence of another leader who could be truly labelled charismatic. Gandhi’s acts in scuttling Subhas Chandra Bose or pre-empting Vallabhbhai Patel may be viewed as part of his ‘vision’, for he considered them as ‘extremists’, whose ‘vision’, he considered, was at cross purposes with his ‘vision’ if not harmful to the nation.
The other political parties really do not count as they ruled the country for a mere 8 of its 63-year existence as an independent nation.
Reviewing post-independence history, therefore, can we cite the “Jawaharlal Nehru Error” or the “Rajiv Gandhi Error”, or to come to the present the “Sonia Gandhi Error”, for her cronies have been looting the exchequer ‘in a variety of creative ways’?
To be fair, Indira Gandhi did have a vision in dealing with the refugee crisis caused by the East Pakistan imbroglio. Her other acts such as nationalising banks may or may not stand the “ennobling” test. The abolition of “Privy Purses” could only be termed treacherous because it amounts to a breach of trust, the abnegation of a sacred guarantee given by the founding fathers of a nation. At a guess the entire amount of the “Privy Purses” which the erstwhile rulers would have received during their lifetime (there was a sunset clause attached to them) would have been less than the amount the nation lost in the Bofors’ scam! Her recourse to the imposition of emergency could be due to a psychological complex – abounding faith in her own judgment and invincibility coupled with megalomania and paranoia.
P. V. Narasimha Rao had a vision but he failed in the test of making his followers identify with his vision.
At lower levels Chandra Babu Naidu and Narendra Modi may be cited as examples of charismatic leadership as both of them have ennobling ‘visions’ and relentlessly pursue their ‘visions’ to realise them.