CHARISMA DEMYSTIFIED - WHAT IT IS, HOW IT ARISES, IS REINFORCED, AND DIVERSE ENDS IT IS USED FOR
Charisma is a very widespread social phenomenon which has been widely written about in literature, debated intensively in earlier sociology, but has been relatively little researched by modern sociological methods, especially as regards comparative studies of different kinds of charismatic persons. Here I make some such comparisons so as to illustrate the similarities in some very charismatic figures, as well as some key similarities and differences in the uses to which they have employed the authority or power which charisma almost invariably makes possible.
Charisma is usually attributed to two causes, 1) personal attractiveness, abilities, charm or perceived greatness which inspire devotion or 2) belief in a person's being divinely blessed or superhumanly inspired. These causes can both apply at once. I ignore the uses of the word 'charisma' which are peripheral or refer to one or another secondary derivations from the main phenomenon. I restrict the word to those persons whom people endow with powers, whether thought to be of divine or other origin, and so revere or follow him as a leader.
Charisma is not a property or characteristic of any person, is not 'inborn' because it is an interactive phenomenon. To say of someone 'he has a lot of charisma' is misleading in that it is always an interaction between a person and an audience which respond positively to what they think and feel important, or simply want to hear. A devoted following is the essential condition of the charismatic figure. The intense desire for a leader towards a promised land can arise from serious sufferings such as come of social disruption, poverty and unemployment or loss of sovreignity, confidence in one's own country, its culture, religion, leaders and people. So as to reinforce the relationship, the charismatic may also project his/her own image as the successor to a powerful tradition, whether divine or heroic, and the constant reinforcement of such a mythology and the leader's image as above and beyond normal frailties are often manipulated features of charismatic personality cults. The utopian models such leaders envision vary from unrealistic visions of a world of peace, of pure love to authoritarian rule and brutal dictatorships, though the packaging and presentation is always positive. Discrepancies between word and deed often grow as many a charismatic's social, financial or political power increases, and the figurative 'iron hand concealed in a velvet glove' is then seldom far away.
Charisma and fame are different, though often related. One can be famous (or infamous) just for becoming widely known without having any following (other than those who simply want to know someone who is more or less famous). Charisma, however, often leads to fame and is seldom the result of fame alone. Likewise, worldly power and charisma often go together but are otherwise essentially unrelated.
Those who qualify as charismatic figures most often consider themselves to be great in some sense, though there are those who humbly claim that 'greatness was thrust upon them'. The Beatles, who largely had their feet on the ground and did not imagine they were great geniuses, exemplify this charisma-with-humility. What may be designated as good and well-meaning charismatics are those who kept within the bounds of the law and did not glorify themselves. For example, such persons as Winston Churchill, who famously said, "I have never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the nation. It was a nation and race dwelling all round that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar." Likewise John F. Kennedy, who was virtually worshipped as a sound American and whose murder traumatised many in the USA and worldwide. Further, Nelson Mandela became a most charismatic figure due to his unassuming but great personal qualities and his resulting unprecedented political and social achievements, but without misusing his fame or self promotion.
The charismatic is always endowed with great apparent self confidence (outwardly and in public if not also necessarily inwardly and in private). People are not born with such 'charismatic' self-confidence in public because it comes only from getting positive responses from the social environment. So-called charismatic leaders thus often develop strong egocentric traits and not seldom also delusions of grandeur which can be so strong as to amount to a Messiah- or Jehova-complex. Countless names could be listed, but a few known self-glorifying charismatics who had fanatical followings and developed excessive such self-delusions in recent times include (to pick out a few): Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Sung, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka Oslo), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Colonel Gadaffi, the reverend Dr. Moon, Sathya Sai Baba and Mata Amritanandamayi.
Another hallmark of the charismatic was to pretend to unusual strength, whether physical or, more usually, psychological. Imperturbality, uncommon tenacity of purpose and self-faith combined with decisiveness in action are the image aspired to. Whenever facts tend to contradict such claims, rationalisation and appeal to extenuating circumstances or laying blame at the doors of others gives the game away, but not the the already well-inducted follower who is always keen to accept such excuses. These qualities have been claimed for many figures of the recent past, some with good reason (Rooseveldt, Churchill, MacArthur, Martin Luther King), but those for whom these were often mere façades (Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi) emphasised their supposed strengths. An amusing contemporary example of the show of physical strength is Vladimir Putin, whose wide range of male macho activities have been filmed and propagated to boost his image (also surely because he is a rather short man).
Charisma and sexual excesses are often discovered in charismatic figures. The possession of power, money and unquestioning followers, devotees and worshippers represents a sexual temptation that it is proven that many charismatic figures fall victim to. Of those so far mentioned here, it is known that Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, John Kennedy, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Colonel Gadaffi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Colonel Gadaffi, and Sathya Sai Baba were major fornicators, while the apparently lesser philanderer Bill Clinton was caught out in this while in the office of President.
One of the defining differences between greatness and self-delusive delusions of grandeur has hardly been better expressed than as follows:-
"Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man." Frank Herbert, from 'Dune' p. 100.
Charismatic leadership in religious movements
The Greek origin og the word, where it meant a gift, and not least one endowed by some divine source. Thus, charisma was important in some of the earliest religion and politics. This was especially so before religious movements crystallised into organised, regulated and state-supported religion. Figures we would judge as having great charisma are legendary in antiquity, such as in the Hindu avatars or 'man-gods', Rama and Krishna (who were but two of many more). Jesus of Nazareth became a charismatic leader, despite almost certainly not himself wishing for a leadership role, and the aura around his history and name and his supposed divine origin and nature as a redeemer and saviour continue, of course, to this day. For the purpose of studying charisma, these figures are beyond systematic study since the sources are so ambiguous, foreshortened, unreliable and difficult of proper interpretation. The source materials illustrating charismatic appeal are surely better as to the Roman emperors from Caesar, especially since Augustus and onwards since he raised himself to the status of a god, which became standard fro many of his successors. Their self-promotion as gods was facilitated by the near-absolute power some of them exercised, even though their followings may have been that mainly from duress or from common awe at the power, wealth and imperiousness. The conditions necessary for the emergence of genuine charisma (i.e. a real and positive relationship between the figure and devoted admirers) are many and diverse, but a study of the social environment of such historical figures is itself a hindrance to gaining much accessible and helpful insight into the psychology or social nature of charismatic figures. To do this two more contemporary examples are far preferable. The Dalai Lama has a world-wife following as a spiriual teacher and was originally proclaimed to be a reincarnation of a previous Dalai Lama with extraordinary powers. Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, was by far the most charismatic and successful religious guru, and not only in India (scroll down).
The Dalai Lama's charismatic greatness
There is no denying that, Tenzin Gyatso, best known as the Dalai Lama, has nearly all the characteristics of classical charisma, according to age-old Tibetan Buddhist tradition, starting with the alleged 'divine rebirth' - a reincarnation of long line of former Dalai Lamas. Its motive is revered by his Buddhist following as being a choice to incarnate exclusively so as to minister to suffering humanity. This was no claim of his own, but was established by a complex process of searching for a baby anywhere in Tibet who recognised the intimate objects of the former Dalai Lama and took them to himself. This is 'charisma' close to the original meaning of being a blessed being with a divine task. When forced into exile by Chinese usurpation of his nation, the young Dalai Lama gradually became a symbol of freedom from foreign oppression by China, firstly for Tibetan Buddhist and increasingly for many persons and groups in the free world. His non-violent Buddhist approach, his down-to-earth humanity, good sense and his morally impeccable behaviour caused him to be seen virtually as a living ikon of Buddhism per se. Unlike many charismatic religionists, he never ranted, performed no hysterical demonstrations of piousness or the like to attract followers. His humility was often seen when he was bowed to, for he would bow yet deeper back. He soon made clear in the West that he did not consider himself a divinity, and he refused to allow a personality cult or allow any cultist indoctrination to his ideas by subtle or deceptive means.
Known universally as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he is ranked (in 2014) as 9th in the list of world leaders (by Time Inc.) and is the unquestioned leader of the Tibetan cause world-wide, which underlines another chief characteristic of the charismatic.
Adolph Hitler's charisma
Hitler was one of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century, possibly surpassing the charisma of both Stalin and Mao Tse Tung in that the huge majority of his population supported him more fervently and fully after the became Chancellor of the Reich up until the high point of his successes in WW2 and the first months of the invasion of the Soviet Union. As Germany suffered one major defeat after the other, his support waned very considerably in Germany even though his iron hand suppressed almost all opposition to himself.
A brief summary of Hitler's rising charisma:- The first step began after his mission in life became clear to him at the age of 30, when he began public speaking and found how to connect with his listeners in his expression of the anger that many Germans felt, and with their desire for scapegoats (especially the Jews) for the problems they were enduring.
Hana Frank, Nazi General Governor of German-occupied Poland, said of Hitler's speeches:- "Everything came from the heart and he struck a chord with all of us. He uttered whatever was in the consciousness of all those present".
To develop the mythology, Hitler put himself forward at the head of a long line of former Germanic heroes, Herman (who had defeated the Romans), the major conqueror Barbarossa (German Friedrich) the Holy Roman Emperor, even heroes of Norse mythology and the ancient 'pure Arian race'. He promoted himself through relics considered sacred, such as the swastika symbol. He was gradually promoted as a superior human, Himmler having said of him: "Hitler is a genuinely great man and above all a true and pure person". He also pretended to possess abnormal power and strength of personality, confirmed by his admirers in Nazi circles, referring to his survival in WWI and his huge successes in rebuilding Germany and as a military genius by risky and unconventional decisions up until the conquest of Western Europe.
The charismatic 'stare' Archive footage shows Hitler consciously trying to use his stare to appear charismatic. He would keep eye contact longer than was usual. One Nazi reported being looked at by Hitler: "That was one of the most curious moments of my life. The gaze, which at first rested completely on one suddenly went straight through me into an unknown distance. It was so strange."
Hitler stated that he was guided by a mystical force 'providence' and that he believed in himself on a messianic pattern became a major part of his appeal.
He shouted very primitive political ideas and wholly invalid claims, using simplistic slogans over and over again. He was propelled to power when chaotic conditions that were favourable to his power struggle reigned (economic collapse, vast debts, bank crash, money valueless). He had promised work, good pay, security and a transformation of the nation away from corruption and greed.
Hitler's initial successes and his power over his Nazi following were used to enforce that no public criticism allowed within his sphere. Certain wrongs or unpopular things under his regime were were blamed on one or another of his subordinates in the hierarchy. A defining feature of Hitler was his total lack of compassion and empathy with any opponent, which even made him seem superior because emotionally unmoved. People said that he could not do everything himself, or right every wrong. People were led to think that, had he known about unpopular things, he would have changed them. Thus his image as blameless, pure and true was upheld.
Winston Spencer Churchill's charisma
The contrast between the type of charismatic and their determining goals of Hitler and Churchill is very marked. While Hitler was much focused on his own charisma and set about using it to control and manipulate people, this was much less marked in Churchill. Charisma has much less effect in a working democracy than in any kind of authoritarian system or dictatorship, since decision are made much less on charismatic grounds when there are checks and balances to ensure that the powers within a state cannot be gathered entirely in any one person or party. Churchill came of a most charismatic family, a descendant of the heroic military figure, the Duke of Marlborough, and son of a Prime Minister, and he clearly identified himself with his forebears as his extensive biography of Marlborough indicates. He did not, however, promote himself on this basis, being a sound democrat and a person who was himself capable of heroism. His rise to public prominence came due to his world famous escapades in Africa, both in Sudan and especially the Boer War. Though he was successful as a politician and only failed preliminarily in elections to be Member of Parliament, he was (most unfairly) blamed for the great failure of the navy in the Dardanelle episode during WW1, so he resigned and went to the trenches as a major... itself a noble act. His charisma was nonetheless at a low ebb for most of the interim between the two world wars and only began to increase exponentially when he took over the running of Britain during its direst crises when the world though the country was lost. Therefore, his charismatic connection with his nation and allied countries was based more on his qualities and abilities as perhaps best known or demonstrated in the Battle of Britain (and despite many subsequent setbacks in the war until late 1942).
While Hitler and the Nazis used propaganda and disinformation in image manipulation on a large scale from an early stage, Churchill relied mainly upon his insightful brilliance as an orator, backed up by his extremely hard work to command detail. His use of symbols - such as the famous V-sign - bore no resemblance to the myth-making efforts of Hitler, nor did he profess any kind of personal powers or the like. In short, his charisma was almost entirely at secular and personal level which evoked such a resounding response from his following.
Charisma as illustrated in John F. Kennedy
Today’s leading JFK biographer and a historian, Robert Dallek held: “Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends." His murder was such a shock to Americans and those who saw him as the torchbearer of a new era of change that mourners were countless and he is mourned wistfully even 50 years later, despite his many subsequently-discovered failings. A strong critic of Dallek's views, Max Boot, writes of Kennedy's charisma: "There is little doubt that there is something here – Kennedy did inspire a generation and many felt called to public service because of his example. But the nation also paid a high cost for the youthful charisma that Kennedy brought to the presidency because its flip side was lack of know-how and experience" - and he cites the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Berlin crisis handling and the Vienna summit in which Kennedy showed what Nikita Kruschev considered weakness, hence initiating the Cuban crisis.
Still, as often with charismatic appeal, Kennedy already had some hero status from his exploits in WW2, well before he ran for the presidency. In the USA where financial power and political influence is idolised, his family was already famous through his father, Josehp Kennedy. JFK did not try to bolster his image through reference to heroic deeds or the kind of associations to past US military or political heroes. His charisma grew chielfly as a result of his oratory and the policies with which he tried to follow it up. His leadership in the Cuba missile crisis increased his charisma considerably. He did not use image-building media or employ such techniques as powerful charismatics do in order to mystify or cow others (such as the staring of Hitler).
The case of Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton, who previously was an extremely successful US with much world-wide support, has been called 'very charismatic', often as if it were a personal quality. For example, in an interview with Hilary Clinton 2014, C. Iley of The Telegraph wrote, "I interviewed Bill Clinton once, briefly, and found him to be hugely charismatic. What’s he like around the house? Is he electric all the time? She guffaws. “I know that when I see it! No, he is very much an around-the-house husband; let’s clean up the kitchen, let’s take the dogs for a walk, what are we going to do with our garden? Very matter-of-fact, everyday issues.” This indicates how charisma it not so much the person as such who emanates it, but that he derives energy and confidence from having had great resonance with Americans as the height of his success, despite the scandals.
President Putin's charisma within Russia
The Daily Telegraph reported: "The perfectly controlled environment Russia’s leader inhabits, his rigid routines, the ceremonialisation of all contact and lack of any spontaneity are like a prison in which he is isolated". "He has spent so long as an icon he is not used to anyone penetrating.." "He is not used to anything not being so perfectly controlled for him. He is isolated, trapped.” His life has become ceremonial: an endless procession of gilded rooms. His routine is parcelled up into thousands of units of 15 minutes and planned for months, if not years ahead." "He follows the daily schedule handed to him. Mostly, the meetings are meaningless. There are those who come to pay homage to him: receiving the Prince of Bahrain or awarding bronze medals to Udmurt Heroes of Labour." from three years of interviews by Ben Judah ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ (Yale)
Charisma as illustrated in Indian 'Divine Incarnation', Sathya Sai Baba