The term charisma is thrown around a lot these days, applied to everyone from pop stars to the merely well-dressed. Sure, words can mean whatever you want them to mean, but they lose their power to explain what is going on. In sociology, charisma is a theory about a particular kind of power, contrasted with bureaucratic power and mere traditional authority. For Max Weber, who originated this analysis, charisma is a main source of historical change, but it is unstable and doesn’t last. It doesn’t mean just fashionable or popular; it means leadership that accomplishes big things.
We can improve Weber’s theory. When we closely examine charismatic people, we find four kinds of charisma-- i.e. there are four different ways that people get charisma. A few people have most or all of them; some get it from only one source.
1. Front-stage charisma
2. Back-stage charisma
3. Success-magic charisma
4. Reputational charisma
1. Front-stage charisma
Front-stage and back-stage are Goffman’s terms for regions of everyday life: whether you are putting on a public performance and doing official things, or when you are in private with your intimates. Back-stage is informal, and it includes both hanging out with your buddies and confidantes, and planning how to handle your front-stage performances. The glib term “transparency” so widely demanded today implies there should be no backstages; no one ever gets to plan anything or to say what they really believe; it all has to be goody-goody front-stage clichés.
Front-stage charisma means putting on overpoweringly impressive performances in front of an audience. The crowd is not just convinced; they are swept off their feet. It is more than just an entertaining moment; after such an experience, we will follow them anywhere. Charisma seizes people’s emotions and shapes their will. A charismatic leader is a great speech-maker. Their speeches recruit a movement.
Jesus is the archetype of front-stage charisma. His sermon on the mount spills over into miracles among the audience. Throughout his career he has mastery of crowds. Even with hostile crowds, he breaks their momentum, seizes the initiative, and ends up emotionally dominating.
Other speech-makers with charismatic power include Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, and on the dark side of the force, Adolf Hitler. The entire Nazi movement was built on mass-participation performances, including their sinister marches, swastikas, Heil Hitler! salutes, and loud-speakers. A charismatic leader is master of the mass media of the day, whatever they may be.
2. Back-stage charisma
Having front-stage charisma does not mean you are charismatic in the informal situations of everyday life. Winston Churchill was regarded as rather an ill-mannered drunk at dinner parties. Alexander the Great was inspirational at the head of his troops in battle, but he palled around with his buddies and sometimes got into fights with them.
An example of purely backstage charisma is T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). When recruiting an Arab army against the Turks in WWI, Lawrence did not try to dominate meetings or give orders. He let the warrior equality of the desert take its course as they discussed at leisure whether to follow the British or not; when the timing felt right, he would quietly announce that he was going to attack such-and-such, whoever felt like coming was welcome. Lawrence also had weapons, money, camels, and a string of military successes, so he soon was being greeted with enthusiastic shouts by warriors rushing to join him. Back on the British side of the lines, Lawrence was quiet but welcome because he brought good news. After the war, he hated publicity and disguised himself as much as possible.
Others with back-stage charisma included Napoleon and Steve Jobs. I will comment on their interactional techniques in a further post.
3. Success-magic charisma
Weber’s main criterion is that charismatic leaders are credited with supernatural powers. Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses are associated with miracles and direct contact with the divine. On the secular level, charisma comes from a string of successes, especially against the odds. Such a leader becomes regarded as unbeatable.
Napoleon acquired such reputation for a long string of battle victories that enemy generals said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 troops, and advised the strategy of going up against other French generals rather than Napoleon himself. Hitler’s reputation in Germany took off with a series of diplomatic and military victories from the mid-1930s through 1941, backing up his earlier boast to make Germany great again.
In the business world, Steve Jobs already had a reputation for backstage charisma when he first developed Apple Computer Co, but his public image changed from eccentric to unbeatable after his return to Apple in 1997 and a ten year string of soaring product roll-outs. He artfully combined success charisma with frontstage charisma, organizing dramatic product launches and making Apple stores scenes for enthusiastic crowd participation.
Unbroken success is hard to come by, and virtually all charismatic leaders have to deal with failure at some point. But charisma requires at least an aura of success. One way this happens is that belonging to a growing movement of enthusiastic followers gives confidence the leader’s promises will pay off. In the stock market, a cascade of followers is a financial success in itself.
4. Reputational charisma
If you have charisma, you get a reputation for it. The fourth type of charisma is a result of the other three. There is also some feedback effect; the more widespread your reputation for charisma, the more it pumps up your appeal as a frontstage performer and as a miracle-worker. But this brings us onto tricky grounds. People who want to be charismatic can try to manipulate it, by working the public relations machine. How successful is this?
One limitation is that the competition can get crowded. There is a limit on how many charismatic people can exist at the same time, especially when they go up against each other. * It would be like having too many prima donnas at a party.
* In examining the networks of philosophers across history, I found a pattern of “the law of small numbers”-- the number of famously creative persons in one generation was almost always between 3 and 6. Whether a similar law of small numbers operates for politics or business has not yet been found.
The struggle for fame will shoot down many contenders, especially in an era dominated by easy access to mass media. This implies that you need a foundation in one of the other three forms of charisma, to have a chance at reputational charisma.
Television and video images convey not just reports of what people did and said, but what they looked like saying it, as if they were face-to-face with the viewer. That turns the most basic test of charisma more into the second type. Back-stage charisma depends on the kinds of emotions conveyed by facial expressions and body rhythms; people are good at picking up genuine emotions and feel uneasy about emotions which are forced. **
** Soon after the 1980 campaign, I attended a meeting with Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research on the facial expression of emotions. Ekman commented that Jimmy Carter had a forced smile, whereas Ronald Reagan’s smile was genuine. Similarly fateful were the disastrous attempts at false impressions in the 1988 campaign, with Michael Dukakis shown in a political ad riding in a tank, and the 2004 campaign with John Kerry shown duck hunting.
Subtypes of merely reputational charisma include:
-- ephemeral pseudo-charisma:
You get a big reputation; enthusiastic crowds flock to see you; everybody wants to get near you, touch you, get your autograph or a selfie with you. This is pretty much the definition of being an entertainment star. It tends to be ephemeral, all the more so as the competition for attention goes on.
It also happens in politics. An example is Gorbachev, who was treated like a rock star, especially in Europe during the mid-1980s. He held out a new future, ending the Cold War, negotiating nuclear weapons reductions, and democratizing the Soviet Union. By 1989-91, these reforms overtook Gorbachev himself; he was not only deposed, but lost his charisma. It comes and goes; until the early 1980s, Gorbachev was just another Communist apparatchik, protégé of the KGB chief Andropov who came to power after Brezhnev’s death. Gorbachev had a period of genuine successes, but his reputation at its height was a bubble that burst when public attention turned elsewhere.
-- historically retrospective charisma:
Some individuals’ charisma is created after their death. An example is Queen Elizabeth the First, whose name is attached to the Elizabethan age. She was not a speech-maker, and she did not direct the policy of England to any great extent during her reign. Major decisions, like executing Mary Queen of Scots and thereby setting off the Spanish Armada, were made behind her back. She had no great skill in winning people over backstage. The impression of her supreme greatness comes from two things: first, her court made a big deal out of flattering her, surrounding her with elaborate courtesy and ostentatious display. She wore magnificent costumes and jewels and was the center of impressive entertainments and ceremonies. In this respect, she was quite a lot like a Chinese Emperor, surrounded by protocol in the Forbidden Palace, while the secretaries ran the country.
Second: the Elizabethan period (and its continuation into the reign of her successor, James I) was a time of great successes for England: the end of the Protestant/Catholic struggles; the growth of English sea power to world class; the historic outpouring of English literature, a good deal of which was dedicated to Elizabeth or performed in her presence. Truth be told, Elizabeth was a magnificent symbol, but a charismatic leader only by historical courtesy.
One of the loosest ways of getting called “charismatic” is merely to be a famous name at a time when important things happened. If we use all four criteria, we can check empirically whether this person was charismatic or not, and in what way. We can look at whether they were good at swaying crowds and recruiting followers; and if they could make disciples out of their intimate acquaintances. Every famous person can be assessed this way, if we have the records. For ancient people this is not always clear. We know too little about the life of Gautama, who became the Buddha. Confucius was not a public success although he did recruit the first generation of followers who later burgeoned into a dominant movement in the history of China.
At any rate, we have four ways people become charismatic, and these can be used to examine any particular case.
Does Donald Trump have charisma?
 Front-stage charisma is his strength. He dominates public meetings, making the crowd enthusiastic and intensely loyal on his behalf. In that sense he is a great speech-maker, although not at all in the style of traditional oratory. His sentences are short and often repetitive, his vocabulary limited. This brings out an important point: effective speech-making does not depend on its formal qualities. Front-stage charisma is generated by connecting with the audience, building emotion, and riding with it.
Trump stands out from other politicians by constantly doing something surprising. From the point of view of his opponents, this means saying things which are shocking; but it also leaves them spending most of their time responding to him, expressing outrage, and rebutting his claims. Trump thus always seizes the initiative, and refuses to give it up. Whereas most people lose emotional energy when they are attacked by a barrage of criticism, Trump does not back down, but renews the attack. Media scandals usually destroy people’s careers, but Trump is unfazed by them, and uses them to focus even more attention upon himself.
Trump uses the media to monopolize the focus of attention of the wider public; he uses his rallies as a stronghold to protect himself from fallout. The way he stands firm and plunges even further ahead in his pathway makes him a beacon for his followers. He becomes an emotional energy hero: no one can top him or push him off his trajectory. *
* In contrast, in the 2000 campaign, Pat Buchanan, a candidate with a similar anti-immigration message, was confronted at a rally in Arizona by a young man, who said, I am one of the Mexican border-crossers you are talking about. What about me? Buchanan was shaken, replying apologetically, I didn’t mean you in particular. Trump is not shaken by pressure to behave according to conventional good manners; in similar situations he attacks. Early in his campaign, he rejected persistent questioning by television journalist Megyn Kelly, shifting the focus to her effort to control the topic. This is where his notorious “blood oozing out of her...” remarks came from. Feminists found this scandalous; but it also alerted the audience that this was someone who would not be pushed around by reporters, even in the smallest details of questioning.
Always doing something surprising; never letting the other side set the agenda; seizing the initiative and never giving it up: these are key characteristics of highly charismatic persons. I have documented these same traits in the face-to-face encounters of Jesus. Obviously I am not saying that Trump resembles Jesus in other respects; yet both illustrate a high degree of front-stage charisma.
Emotional energy is confidence, enthusiasm, initiative, and persistence. In Interaction Ritual (IR) theory, emotional energy is the result of successful encounters. That requires getting everyone’s attention focused on the same thing; generating a shared emotion; and building up rhythmic entrainment so that the group feels themselves unified and strengthened. Successful IRs do not have to start with positive emotions; negative emotions like fear or anger also work because they attract so much attention. The key to a successful IR is to transform the initial emotion into a feeling of collective solidarity in the group. We may be angry but we are angry together, and that makes us strong; fearful or frustrated but fearful and frustrated together. Trump is a master of this dynamic in public events. Pushback from the outside does not faze him, since it is what keeps his rallies intense; and his followers, who might otherwise be emotionally intimidated by that pushback in the general population, find Trump a pillar of strength. He is the unusual person who not only rides out scandals, but flourishes on them.
 Back-stage charisma. Trump is much less charismatic here. By all reports, when he interacts with people one-on-one, his attention wanders. He gets along with persons who are extremely deferential to him. He is more domineering than inspiring. Hence his preference for big rallies; small meetings with one-on-one interaction are not his forte, not where he gets his emotional energy.
 Success-magic charisma. This is part of the image that Trump claims for himself, that unlike others he is always the winner. Nevertheless, many of his business ventures have been failures, with numerous bankruptcies. Clearly Trump is not in a league with Caesar or Napoleon with their string of victories, or with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett in business success.
A number of mitigating points need to be made. Virtually no one has an unbroken string of successes (see Napoleon, Caesar..). A reputation for success-magic can be upheld by springing back from failures. This is what Trump does with his bankruptcies, especially since he dumps the loss on his investors. Michel Villette, in his study of great fortunes made in Europe and the US during mid-20th century, found that most of them went through bankruptcies and legal fights, which they emerged from successfully by hard-balling everyone else. Trump fits that pattern.
In his business career, Trump uses his claims to making great investments as a way of snowing financiers into investing. When the enterprise fails, they are in so deep that they have to bail him out. In his personal business, Trump has played explicitly on the theme, too big to be allowed to fail.
Is this success-magic charisma? At best, a manipulative form of it, characteristic of the world of skyrocketing finances from the 1990s through the present.
 Reputational charisma. This kind of charisma is derivative of the other three. There is a multiplier effect, once the reputation machine get rolling. Thus far (mid-October 2016 at time of writing) it remains to be seen whether Trump will turn out to be another instance of ephemeral pop-star reputation.
In sum, Trump has front-stage charisma, and not a lot of the other three kinds.
Does charisma win elections?
Politics is a competition. Being charismatic for one group of people does not make you charismatic for everyone; and that is true for any historic figure we can think of. So having opponents who deny your charisma does not mean you don’t have it.
Modern media-oriented political campaigns give a premium to charisma or what looks like it. Are elections determined by who has more charisma?
In the primary campaigns, the only other person who built up a charismatic profile was Bernie Sanders. Clearly this was all front-stage charisma. Sanders is not imposing as a personality. Throughout his career in Congress, he was an isolated figure whose vote was rarely sought out by anyone. He has no record or reputation for success. What he did find, in the 2015-16 campaign, was a constituency who wanted somebody radical, who could voice their criticism of the establishment. Bernie Sanders epitomizes Weber’s point that charisma comes from the audience more than from the individual himself. This helps explain Bernie’s reluctance to shut down his campaign, even after he had clearly lost and his continued criticism was damaging Hillary Clinton’s general election. He went from nobody to charismatic leader-- as long as he stayed in the magic spotlight of his enthusiastic rallies. In this last respect, the Sanders and Trump campaigns are similar.
Hillary Clinton is not charismatic. She has had to learn how to make political stump speeches. She has mastered the rhetoric, the gestures, the facial expressions. It still doesn’t look spontaneous.* Over the years, Hillary was known as a get-down-to-business, get-things-done person, the opposite of warm and fuzzy. Her campaign smile, in particular, is what Ekman would call a forced smile. I suggest that her front-stage demeanor, more than anything else, is what gives many people the feeling she is not trustworthy. The scandal-politics of issues about emails and Monday morning quarterbacking over terrorist attacks are less telling than the emotional resonance that many people feel is missing in her public face. By all accounts, she is a capable person backstage. She has a mixed record of success, no reputation for magic. Like most politicians at the height of a campaign, she does generate enthusiasm from her hard-core supporters; that comes less from her own charisma than from the audience projecting their emotions onto her.
* Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries displayed a speaking style that also looked artificial: rhetorical statements, followed by pause for effect, accompanied by sweeping arm gestures. It went on too long and looked like it was coached, without getting the rhythm right. Trump beat everyone to the punch with his spontaneity. The other politicians made him look good.
Strong charisma is rare. In most elections, in the US and elsewhere, there has been no charismatic figure. If we drop down to a looser criterion-- how did the candidates compare in whatever lesser degrees of charisma they had?-- it still would not be clear that the person who looked more charismatic won. Sometimes clearly charismatic persons lose: Churchill’s party lost the election of 1945 even though Churchill personally was at the height of his war-time reputation.
This is an open field for research: examine elections by rating the candidates on the four kinds of charisma. There are instances where the most charismatic figure rolled to victory (FDR’s string of four terms), others where the charismatic leader lost (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912), plenty of elections where nobody was charismatic or their charisma did not come until later (Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI). Charisma is just one ingredient in political success, and we haven’t yet measured how it stacks up against other conditions.
Charisma is not the only form of leadership
There are other kinds of successful organization leaders.
-- The harmonious team manager, who gets everyone working together and focused on goals. Eisenhower was an example; never a battlefield leader, he kept the war effort going by managing difficult personalities like De Gaulle and Churchill, Patton and Montgomery. Another person, well known to myself, is a woman who wherever she goes is always elected to lead the organization or chair the committee. She gets along with all factions, keeps things moving, and is appreciated for winding up meetings without wasting time. (She is my wife.)
-- The smart decision-maker and strategist. There is a lot of hype about this, especially in business, so we need to keep a careful scorecard. In politics, an example is 19th century German chancellor Bismarck, who engineered the unification of the German Reich, and out-maneuvered the left by introducing a welfare state. Today, the nearest example may be California Governor Jerry Brown (in his later career): he plans ahead for political crises and budget shortfalls, using the ballot initiative to change legislative rules so that his bills can get through. Brown avoids charisma and minimizes public campaigning. Backstage, he skips chit-chat and plunges immediately into goals and how to reach them. Unlike charismatic leaders, strategists of this sort tend to be undogmatic, and are willing to buck their own party and borrow policies from the opposition. Bill Gates’ career at Microsoft is a business example.
-- The coalition-builder. Lyndon Johnson, never charismatic in public, was a power-house at lining up votes for legislation, with a mixture of schmoozing, horse-trading, and putting on pressure. Abraham Lincoln, who was a good orator, also had this skill. Coming into the presidency in a very divided political situation, he put as many of his opponents as possible into his cabinet, then played them against each other so as to get the most effective financial and logistical effort for the war. His non-charismatic side was just as important as his public charisma, which grew towards the end of the Civil War.
Bottom line: Charisma is one way to mobilize people into action. In elections, charisma does not always win. In running an organization, charismatic leadership works best in combination with a details-oriented team, as seen in the second incarnation of Steve Jobs at Apple. In running a government, the non-charismatic styles are an indispensable ingredient.
Charisma shakes things up. Other leadership styles are needed to get things done.
“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon
Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies. 1998.
Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. 2009.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959.
Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot, From Predators to Ikons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero. 2009.
On Jesus’s interactional style:
On Steve Jobs, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great:
Randall Collins and Maren McConnell, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Emotional Energy. 2016. Maren Ink.
On T.E. Lawrence:
On Queen Elizabeth the First:
Susan Doran, The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603. 2009. N.Y.: Metro Books.
Garrett Mattingly, The Armada. 1959. Houghton Mifflin.