Charismatic authority

From Academic Kids

Charismatic authority, as defined by the sociologist Max Weber, is one of three forms of authority laid out in Weber's tripartite classification of authority, the other two being traditional authority and legal or rational authority.



Charismatic authority is 'power legitimized on the basis of a leader's exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers' (Kendall, Murray, Linden, 2000). As such, it rests almost entirely on the leader; the absence of that leader for any reason can lead to the authority's power dissolving.

Due to its idiosyncratic nature and lack of formal organization, charismatic authority depends much more strongly on the perceived legitimacy of the authority than Weber’s other forms of authority. For instance, a charismatic leader in a religious context might require an unchallenged belief that the leader has been touched by God. [1] ( However, should the strength of this belief fade, the power of the charismatic leader can fade quickly, which is one of the ways in which this form of authority shows itself to be unstable. In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers.

Note that according to Weber, a charismatic leader does not have to be a positive force; thus, both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler could be reasonably considered charismatic leaders.

Routinizing charisma

Charismatic authority almost always evolves in the context of examples of traditional or rational-legal authority which provide forms and boundaries, but by its nature tends to challenge currently accepted forms of authority and thus is often seen as revolutionary. [2] ( However, the constant challenge that charismatic authority presents to older forms of authority must eventually either subside or be incorporated into the society. The way in which this happens is called routinization.

Routinization is the process by which ‘charismatic authority is succeeded by a bureaucracy controlled by a rationally established authority or by a combination of traditional and bureaucratic authority’ (Turney, Beeghley, and Powers, 1995 cited in Kendal et al. 2000). For example, the Prophet Muhammad was succeeded by the traditional authority and structure of Islam, a clear example of routinization.

Some leaders may emply various tools to create and extend their charismatic authority, for example utilisng the science of public relations.


According to Weber, the idea of charismatic authority emerged from the sociology of religion, and is particularly associated with new religious movements (including cults) led by a charismatic individual (e.g. a prophet or a guru), who can create laws by decrees that are sometimes based on revelations, gives upadesh (instruction), or gives advice that ardent followers may see as absolute commands. According to the sociologist Eileen Barker at the London School of Economics charismatic leaders of new religious movements are unpredictable. [3] ( As in the example of Islam, a religion which evolves its own priesthood and establishes a set of laws and rules is likely to lose its charismatic character and move towards another type of authority upon the removal of that leader.

In politics, charismatic rule is often found in various authoritarian states, autocracies, dictatorships and theocracies. In order to help to maintain their charismatic authority, such regimes will often establish a vast personality cult, which can be seen as an attempt to lend legitimacy by an appeal to other forms of authority. When the leader of such a state dies or leaves office and a new charismatic leader does not appear, such regime is likely to fall shortly afterwards if it is unable to survive without the personal attraction of the ruler, or it may become routinized as described above.

Religious charismatic leaders

Some famous charismatic leaders in religion include:

Political charismatic leaders

Some notable charismatic rulers in history include:

See also


  1. Kendall, Diana, Jane Lothian Murray, and Rick Linden. 2000. Sociology in our time (2nd ed.). Scarborough, On: Nelson, 438-439.
  2. Charismatic Authority: Emotional Bonds Between Leaders and Followers (
  3. Weber links (
  4. Barker, E New Religious Movements (London: HMSO, 1992), page 13

External links


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