Defining Charisma

If one asked what Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr., Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, Genghis Khan, and Jesus Christ have in common, it would not be an easy question to answer. They had completely different perspectives and values; they vied for absolutely opposite social changes. They had certain characteristics, though, that made them leaders in their spheres. All of them were charismatic, influencing large masses of people. The history of humankind provides us with multiple examples of charismatic personalities in different fields – religion, politics, and creative mediums. The term charisma itself does not have a negative or positive connotation. Most people believe charisma to be supernatural. But charisma can be viewed from different perspectives and the understanding of this word differs in theology, social, political, and psychological studies.

The term “charisma” originated from the Greek work “χάρισμα”, which means “special gift” or “grace”. In ancient Greece, there were goddesses called “charits”, who possessed charm, beauty, and loveliness, and could easily attract the attention of any person. In modern sociology and psychology, “charisma” is defined as a specific ability of a person to earn unlimited trust and support of their followers, as well as assure personal authority and power. It can be also understood as charm and attractiveness, which may inspire feelings of devotion and admiration.

In modern science, this term has been studied and investigated by many scholars worldwide, mostly by German scientists. First proposed by theologian Ernst Troeltsch, it was developed in the 1950s by famous sociologist Max Weber, who studied charisma and charismatic leaders in the framework of the ideal types of states. In his work, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Weber gave the basic definition of charisma, which reads as follows: “Charisma is a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Weber also believed that society should be “ready” to accept a charismatic person, which means that most personalities whom we now call charismatic have appeared at the time when society needed dramatic changes and faced some extraordinary challenges, as we observe in the history of Germany before Hitler’s assumed power or the situation in the Roman Empire when Christianity germinated.

Charisma and charismatic persons always have been some kind of enigma. Thousands of devoted people almost worshiped their leaders, believing that they possessed supernatural powers and abilities. There is a certain difficulty in defying this term, as the nature of charisma lies beyond the empirical understanding of the world. Nowadays, we say that “someone has charisma” when we believe this person to be outstanding and capable of influencing other people. Combined with other features of character, such as leadership and oratory skills, personal attractiveness, devotion to certain ideas and confidence, charisma does not longer remain a “divine gift,” turning into a mighty tool of authority and personal power.