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Where is Richard Branson when we really need him?

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Philip J. Calvert, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Defining charisma in the modern age

Even at my most unbuttoned, I have always doubted that I would ever be described as charismatic. Bluntly put, common sense has told me that my charisma is on the same level as the average garden gnome. Have I been too hard on myself? To say someone has or lacks charisma means we must be able to define the term in its modern usage, and that is not as easy as it seems. Fortunately, an excellent article by Paul et al. (2002) helps us understand the concept of charismatic leadership. After reading it thoroughly I was once again forced to come to the conclusion that I totally lack charisma, but the paper is still worthwhile for its insights into the way our thinking about leadership has changed over the past 50 years.

History of charismatic leadership

Not so long ago, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the world seemed full of charismatic leaders. John F. Kennedy was revered for his personality and his rhetoric, far more than for any achievements of his American presidency. Charles De Gaulle and to some extent Harold Wilson represented alternative charismatic leadership in the West. Other charismatic leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung represented very different political philosophies from Kennedy, but they were revered perhaps even more by their people, and Ho very definitely left a lasting legacy. In various fields of human endeavour we witnessed the enormous popularity of The Beatles with the charismatic John Lennon, plus Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and other stars of film and music who had more than just talent – they were magnetic.


The word "charisma" comes directly from the Bible, where it means, quite specifically, the endowment of divine grace. The first modern writer to use it regularly was Max Weber, who employed the word almost in a religious sense when he viewed charisma as a pure form of authority, thus making the individual stand out from the masses by his or her exceptional powers or qualities. Weber believed that such powers were not accessible to the "ordinary" person. That rules out just about everybody reading this column, I should think. Later management writers removed the religious overtones in Weber's definition, but retained the idea that there had to be something exceptional about the individual to deserve the charismatic label. It was in that era that Kennedy and the others mentioned above seemed to have charisma, while the rest of us most surely did not. The problem with this definition had to be faced when charismatic politicians, for the most part, failed to achieve the huge changes in society they had promised to deliver. Mao led China into the chaos and catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, Wilson's reforms failed to halt Britain's slide and De Gaulle took France into greater isolation. By 1970, the mention of charismatic leadership was enough to make most political analysts cringe.

The truly fascinating aspect of the history of charismatic leadership is how it seems to have shifted away from glamorous worlds such as politics and entertainment and into the previously mundane world of the boardroom. If we think of charismatic figures from the 1980s and 1990s we are much more likely to come up with names such as Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Dick Smith and Richard Branson. There was a time when I could not turn on my television without watching images of Branson buying another airline or flying his hot air balloon around the world. For someone who started his business career by publishing a student magazine he has gone far.

Management theorists now suggest that these leaders do not depend only on personal qualities alone, but on their ability to transmit passion, vision and mission to those who follow them. The charismatic leader's mission is collective by nature, and without followers it is axiomatic that there cannot be a leader. It is the leader's behaviour that results in the attribution of charisma by followers. Charismatic behaviour includes the presentation of an idealized vision that differs markedly from the status quo, the taking of large personal risks (physical, financial, political or artistic), making some self-sacrifice to achieve the vision, the use of unconventional strategies, clear articulation of the vision, unusual behaviour of an uplifting kind, and being an agent of radical change.

Examining leadership in LIS literature

It is interesting to note how little LIS literature has examined leadership. Do librarians and information managers shy away from the thought of missionary leadership? It is odd, in a way, if they do, for librarians as a breed often seem imbued with a rare passion for their work. I have met government officials who dread locking horns with a librarian because of the amount of passion that librarians bring to the table. This resembles quite closely Weber's concept of "institutional charisma" that consists of inspirational norms and beliefs that all members of the organisation are expected to possess or adhere to, thus depersonalizing the charisma in a way that I suspect is appealing to the majority of librarians. That would explain a librarian's loyalty to the values of the profession above loyalty to a manager who might try to "subvert" such values.

Many librarians seem to have a vision of a desired state that does not directly descend from any one inspirational leader. Indeed, some management thinkers argue that professionalism can substitute for leadership, as professionals form strong horizontal relationships, use their peer-to-peer networks and develop referents outside the organization (other libraries, for example). Professional work groups can create a routinized charismatic message (e.g. "the library is a public good and it must be free") that can substitute for charismatic leadership. The weakness of this behaviour is that it institutionalizes the status quo, making it very hard for anyone to introduce change.

The more we do the same, the more we will get the same

The information professions seem able to generate their own sense of vision and purpose, and so seem able to dispense with charismatic leaders. So, all of you who are like me and realize that your charisma quotient is zero, worry no more. Yet I cannot help wondering if there is not a place for someone with radical ideas who will challenge our professional norms and present a new vision for the future of information management. The more we do the same, the more we will get the same, and if we want something different and something better, then someone needs to come along and stir things up. That person will need some rare charisma to break down the walls of library institutionalism. Where's Richard Branson when we really need him?

Further reading

Paul, J., Costley, D.L., Howell, J.P. and Dorfman, P.W. (2002), "The mutability of charisma in leadership research", Management Decision, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 192-200.