Leadership and Charisma

Over the course of this year we have been looking at the idea of power and leadership, and we’ve done so through the lens of critical theory. That means we have tried to expose behaviors, practices, and norms—be they implicit or explicit—that limit us from fully flourishing as followers of Jesus. We have addressed gender, theology, culture, and status, and have yet to engage charisma and intelligence. I invite you to stay with me on this journey, as the most exciting part is yet to come: the post-exposure part where we explore what we do moving forward to ensure our enacting of power is more aligned with the Kingdom.

For now, some thoughts on the notion of charisma:

Do you remember a time when you were attracted to a person in a leadership position because they just seemed, well, so cool? I can. When I was 11 years old my counselor at Bible camp was the coolest person I had ever met. He had long hair (think the 70s), was super athletic, played the guitar, had an old car with flames painted on the side, cliff dived, and said words like “man,” “dude,” and “cool” a lot. Thankfully, he also loved Jesus and served him with humility. He was someone I was drawn to and who pointed me to Jesus.

I can also remember a youth pastor with a similarly magnetic personality, and we were all pretty drawn to him as well. Sadly, he ended up misusing that attraction and behaving inappropriately with several youth members. In short, it felt like he used his charisma to meet his own needs rather than the needs of those he was meant to serve.

Wikipedia defines charisma as “compelling attraction or charm that can inspire devotion in others.” In a visually oriented society, I think a key part of charisma is physical beauty: the sort of telegenic good looks that seem to be a requirement for those who want to rise in the pop culture entertainment industry.

An academic colleague of mine wrote her dissertation on the topic of charisma and leadership. One of the themes that arose from her research was the dark side of charisma. Oversimplified, it pointed to a high level of risk involved in charismatic leadership: the risk that people will be so attracted to the charisma of the leader that they are willing to overlook gaps in information, integrity, and competency.

In contemporary pop culture, I don’t think we need to look very far to see this reality: celebrities who draw people’s deep interests based on their dashing good looks and witty personality but who really don’t have anything meaningful to say about human flourishing. However, that’s a pretty easy target.

The dark side of charisma also rears itself within Christendom and our own communities. I can think of many teachers who are very charismatic and who draw parents and students based on their winsome personalities and their general attractiveness. Among those teachers, I can think of a few who are not strong pedagogically, are casual in their planning and assessment, and have become lax in staying current with content knowledge. But all of that can be overlooked because of the power of charisma to draw people in.

This can also be true in leadership positions, and those of us who rely on charisma can be tempted to lead out of that instead of doing the hard work of collecting and presenting data, garnering feedback, building leadership capacity and consensus, collective vision and goal setting, monitoring strategic directions, and fostering authentic relationships of mentoring and being mentored. In the end, our organizations are far better served by the good work we do rather than simply the charisma we exude.

When we look at the life of Christ, we see people dropping everything to follow him.

I would suggest this is because of the compelling attraction of his message: the good news of wholeness he brings. If ever there was a leader whose actions were solely focused on the needs of those around him, it is the self-donating example of the Christ. In fact, I think the incarnation gives us a clear example of a richer definition of beauty, wherein the fruit of the spirit shines brightly. That kind of charisma can draw those around us into being fully alive in the story!

As you finish up your year and the various administrative tasks that involves, I encourage you to reflect on your own leadership as well as the leadership of the formal and informal leaders with whom you serve with. Reflect on respective strengths and charismatic qualities that each brings to the table and how those are harnessed for the good of the kingdom of God.

Wishing you good Sabbath rest.

– David Loewen

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