Power & Authority: Charismatic Authority Research Paper Starter

Power & Authority: Charismatic Authority

Charismatic authority is one of the three types of legitimate authority identified by Max Weber. Weber's theory of legitimate authority can be traced back to the dramatic political changes Germany underwent during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The charismatic leader gains power and authority solely on the basis of his or her "larger than life" personal appeal and charm. All three of Weber's forms of legitimate authority are theoretical or ideal concepts, meaning that, in reality, it is rare for an authority to be purely one type. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Fidel Castro offer good examples of charismatic authority.

Keywords Charismatic Authority; Legitimate Authority; Max Weber; Rational-Rational Legal; Traditional Rule



British television host Sir David Frost has the distinction of having interviewed some of the most powerful and influential individuals in the world, including six British prime ministers, seven United States presidents, and countless celebrities. However, when asked who was the most charismatic individual he had ever interviewed, Frost chose a man whose name can be literally interpreted as "troublemaker": Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In particular, he commented on Mandela's 28 years of wrongful captivity on Robben Island and how he famously emerged with no signs of bitterness. When Frost asked Mandela about this unusual degree of patience, the future president of South Africa replied, "David, I would like to be bitter, but there is no time to be bitter. There is work to do" ("Human spirit," 2008).

Mandela's desire to reemerge into the public arena and lead South Africa beyond the shackles of the apartheid era is a testament to both his professional capabilities and his personal appeal as a unique, dynamic individual. His example leads to an important point about authority and leadership: political leadership relies on a myriad of personal and professional qualifications. Not the least among these qualifications is the ability to garner the support of the people. In order to do so, political leaders must be able to speak to the public in such a way as to indicate that they understand the issues and are capable of addressing them. In short, leaders need to have charisma.

[RT1]It is no surprise, therefore, that the eminent German sociologist Max Weber viewed charismatic leadership as one of his ideal forms of authority. To be sure, Weber did not view this form of leadership with a great esteem, having lived in the shadow of multiple charismatic leaders in his lifetime. Nevertheless, despite his personal attitudes concerning such concepts, Weber could not claim that charismatic authority was irrelevant or ineffectual.

Max Weber

Max Weber was no stranger to charisma. Growing up in the Germany constructed by Otto von Bismarck, the "Iron Chancellor," and headed by the outspoken emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, Weber had firsthand experience of these leaders' impacts on German society. It was leaders like them who inspired Weber to develop a profile of the ideal forms of authority. His three types of legitimate authority provide not a set of guidelines for others to follow but rather a commentary on the aspects of effective leadership and the shortcomings of ineffectual rulers.

While a more in-depth breakdown of these three concepts will be provided later in this essay, it is important to first put Weber's views into their historical context. Weber's Germany was anything but a placid political environment. When Bismarck unified the country's war-torn regions in the middle of the nineteenth century, he did so by centralizing the German bureaucracy around him. When he and another powerful German ruler, the kaiser, began to clash over the question of rule, he left office out of respect for him. However, the nation's administrative system was ill-equipped to address the Germans' needs when its central authority, Bismarck, no longer operated it. Germany, in Weber's eyes, was well-positioned to prosper under the administrative hand of Bismarck's bureaucracy but, ironically, fell into disrepair under the charismatic authority of the very same man.

Unfortunately, the kaiser's move to push out Bismarck did little to strengthen his own regime. In fact, subsequent chancellors proved at best ineffectual, in part due to Wilhelm's desire to avoid another Iron Chancellor. The sparring continued among the German leadership until the early twentieth century, when the kaiser's disastrous militaristic campaign in the First World War prompted a revolution of sorts, forcing Wilhelm II to abdicate his throne. Socialists quickly filled the void, led by Kurt Eisner. Eisner, rather than asserting his group's dominance, reached out to potential rivals and peasants alike to form a "United States of Germany" (Rempel, 2008).

Like his predecessors, however, Eisner fell into a trap of his own design. His vanity and sense of moral superiority would alter his reputation and eventually undermine his brief stint as prime minister of Bavaria (Mitchell, 2003). Weber, who at one time spoke quite highly of Eisner, changed his opinion of the socialist "revolutionary" as he saw Eisner begin to embrace his eccentricities and personal appeal rather than build a long-lasting political infrastructure (Hopkins, 2007).

In light of his experiences, it comes as no surprise that Weber would seek to understand the forms of legitimate authority in the modern world. It is also understandable that part of these observations would center on the charismatic leader.

Weber's Three Types of Legitimate Authority

Max Weber was first and foremost a sociologist. An unabashed adherent to the concept of natural justice and fairness, his firm grasp of the legal world would be called upon in other arenas of social study, including economics and, of course, political science. However, his views on the latter subject would reveal a sense of cynicism toward political leadership.

Based on this ingrained sense of concern regarding leadership, Weber offered his three types of legitimate authority. The first of these manifestations of leadership is the one that was preferred by Weber: rational-legal rule. Within this type, authority is legitimized via the rule of law in a system that features a strong bureaucracy. No single leader stands out, at least in the sense that he or she would be compelled to dominate the administrative activities of that bureaucracy.

The second of Weber's types is traditional authority. Within this type, ruling authority is legitimized on the basis of traditions such as religious rites or cultural histories. Leaders achieve their in power simply because "it has always been done this way." Monarchies and religious governments both demonstrate this form of leadership.

Before going into depth concerning the third of these types of authority, charisma, it is important to review the descriptive term applied to each of these concepts. Each of these forms of authority, as presented by Weber, is considered "legitimate"; in other words, they were not put in place through a violent coup or illegal activities. Rather, the society accepts these authorities and their regimes. In many cases, the leader is reelected, the leader's political party experiences growth and success, and the regime is endorsed by the body politic.

This argument is particularly interesting when one reviews the third of Weber's ideals of authority: charismatic rule.

Further Insights

Charismatic Authority

An expert on organized religion, Max Weber saw a bit of the divine in the charismatic ruler. In fact, charisma itself, Weber asserted, is a superhuman trait or a sign of extraordinary powers. Like the traditional ruler, who is legitimized on the basis of religious, cultural, or hereditary rites, the charismatic ruler is given legitimacy on the basis of his or her extraordinary personal characteristics, not qualification or legal precedent. His or her supporters offer their devotion to the individual, not his or her regime or administration, through volunteerism, honorary gifts, and donations (Joosse, 2006).


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