“The sky is purple.” As you create the mental image of a deep purple colored sky, you might walk across to an open window. You will see a blue (or grey!) sky. The mental image is shattered and replaced by reality. Congratulations, your brain is working. Or, to put it more accurately, the part of your brain that checks other parts of your brain is doing its job. When you dream you might be able to fly, lift airplanes or be a millionaire; when you wake up it all goes away.
Modern brain research has shown us that a charismatic person can temporarily take that ability away from us. Much like our defences are softened when we sleep, we allow a gifted speaker to put thoughts in our heads without examining them. If you are good at presentations or sales pitches you may have had one of these moments: the audience is taking it all in, it is going great and then someone reacts. “Hey, wait a minute…” He has noticed that he was getting carried away and is trying to snap out of it before you close the deal. (Charismatic Leadership: An Exploratory Investigation of the Techniques of influence – George A. Sparks)
In terms of brain activity is much like hypnosis. A state whereby you are more susceptible to suggestion. Cult leaders often use it to achieve a mass dellusion. Marshall Applewhite managed to get 39 people to commit the largest ever mass suicide in the U.S. Max Weber considered charismatic leadership as a phenomenon attached to an age where people believed that the leader was uniquely connected to the supreme being. Before the “legal-rational” age. (Three Seasons of Charismatic Leadership – Tamás Czövek & Carl E. Armerding) Research has moved forward since then and the leader-follower interaction (LMEX theory) has provided a good framework for more multi faceted thinking on the topic. It also produced simple “to do” lists such as setting an example, challenging the status quo, visioneering, providing moral support and empowerment of followers. (Social Construction of Charismatic Leadership – Timothy P. McMahon)
The image of a fearless leader running ahead in “battle” (whatever business, political or athletic battle that may be) is almost hard wired into or brains. Yet, as we head into the information age, the evidence mounts that it is baggage we need to leave behind. In an age of Wikipedia and collective intelligence, can we really assume that a single person can interpret reality for us? What we probably need are people that can help create the right context for solving problems as a group. Indeed even the leadership process needs to constantly justify its existence. Much like an electronic forum. We occasionally need administrators. We always need contributors. We seldom need leaders.
So a word of advice to budding political, business or religious leaders: the game has changed. If you are going to rely on those few which are still looking for a magic button saviour, you will soon be out of business. We need leaders, but they need us more than ever.
A good overview of how management thinking has evolved on this topic is in “Charismatic Leadership in Organizations” – Jay A. Conger, Rabindra N. Kanungo