Are Charismatic Leaders Transformational?

transformational leadership

Yes, ladies and gents, it’s another installment of Words Mean Things! On today’s show, we’ll be talking about the differences between charismatic leaders and transformational leaders, because let me assure you — they’re different.

The two terms — charismatic leadership and transformational leadership — are used interchangeably an awful lot, and there are certainly some similarities and overlap; but again, there are some differences.

Charismatic Leadership

The basic idea with charisma is that it’s attributed to leaders by followers who perceive those leaders to posses qualities or traits that are exceptional or extraordinary in some way. Perhaps they’re visionaries or something. Whatever it is, people are drawn to it. Those leaders are…well…charismatic.

There are three or four theories on charisma and how it works, but the short version is this. They usually do some combination of the following:

  • Appeal to a big vision or idea
  • Use really strong and/or expressive forms and methods of communicating that vision or idea
  • Take risks to make progress toward that idea
  • Have high expectations of those who would come along for the ride
  • Imply that they have confidence in their followers
  • Shape their followers’ impressions of them
  • Seek to provide followers legitimate ways to contribute to the vision.

Charismatic leadership seems to flourish in some sort of crisis situation, or at least within a scenario where the status quo is being challenged or changed. That’s why you’ll often see a charismatic leader be extremely popular during a crisis or perceived crisis, but then quickly fade from popularity once that timeframe is over. Churchill after World War II might be a decent example of this.

It’s also important to note that charismatic leaders are by no means always good. An interesting contrast might be FDR and Hitler. Both of them lived at the same time, and both were charismatic in their own right; but one was a more positive charismatic leader, while the other was a pretty terrible human being. The same is true of charismatic leaders in the business world. Some are really fantastic; others can be pretty terrible human beings. The bottom line here is that there are so many really great things that charismatic leaders can bring to the table, but there are also potential pitfalls to be aware of.

Just because someone is charismatic doesn't mean they're a good leader. #leadership #companyculture Click To Tweet

Transformational Leadership

The essence of transformational leadership is different. Transformational leaders are very interested in motivation and morale, and utilize a variety of methods to humanize their teams. It’s more about inspiring, developing, empowering, etc. In some sense, those things might even reduce the amount of charisma a leader is perceived to have. You could almost think of it this way: some degree or type of charisma is a necessary component of transformational leadership, but a leader can be charismatic without being transformational.

A leader can be charismatic without being transformational. #leadership #companyculture Click To Tweet

Another broad difference would be that transformational leaders would tend to act in ways that would enable followers to act more independently, while charismatic leaders might spend more time fostering a particular image, and at times that image can potentially include the implication that the followers are dependent on the charismatic leader.

Generally speaking, transformational leaders:

  • Believe in their followers and have positive expectations for them
  • Provide an inspiring vision and include followers in shaping the path towards it
  • Believe in mentoring and coaching
  • Emphasize cooperation
  • Are authentic and vulnerable
  • Encourage the team to serve others
  • Promote the good of the whole above the good of individuals
  • Believe in the autonomy of people
  • See part of their role as one of helping others become more fully human

So as you can see, while there are some similarities and overlaps, there are some distinct differences between charismatic and transformational leaders. Not every charismatic or transformational leader will exhibit all of the characteristics listed above, or even any of them in the same way.

The bottom line, though, is this: while the two styles are different, transformational leadership is a more holistic and positive expression of leadership, albeit one that has as a component a certain degree of charisma. However, charisma, on its own, is not enough to be a sustainable and positive leadership style.

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