Charisma [kuh-riz-muh] is compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

Scholars in sociology, political science, psychology, and management reserve the term for a type of leadership seen as extraordinary; in these fields, the term ‘charisma’ is used to describe a particular type of leader who uses ‘values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden leader signaling.’

In Christian theology, the term appears as ‘charism,’ an endowment or extraordinary power given by the Holy Spirit.

The English term charisma is from the Greek (‘kharisma’), which means ‘favor freely given’ or ‘gift of grace.’ The term derives from ‘charis,’ which means ‘grace.’ Some derivatives from that root (including ‘grace’) have similar meanings to the modern sense of personality charisma, such as ‘filled with attractiveness or charm,’ ‘kindness,’ ‘to bestow a favor or service,’ or ‘to be favored or blessed.’ Ancient Greeks applied personality charisma to their gods; for example, attributing charm, beauty, nature, human creativity or fertility to goddesses they called ‘Charites.’

Theologians and social scientists have expanded and modified the original Greek meaning into two distinct senses: personality charisma and divinely conferred charisma. The meaning of charisma has become greatly diffused from its original divinely conferred meaning, and even from the personality charisma meaning in modern English dictionaries, which reduces to a mixture of charm and status.

John Potts, who has extensively analyzed the term’s history, sums up meanings beneath this diffused common usage: ‘Contemporary charisma maintains, however, the irreducible character ascribed to it by Weber: it retains a mysterious, elusive quality. Media commentators regularly describe charisma as the ‘X-factor.’ …The enigmatic character of charisma also suggests a connection – at least to some degree – to the earliest manifestations of charisma as a spiritual gift.’

The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible record the development of divinely conferred charisma. In the Hebrew text the idea of charismatic leadership is generally signaled by the use of the noun ‘hen’ (‘favor’) or the verb ‘hanan’ (‘to show favor’). “The paradigmatic image of the charismatic hero is the figure who has received God’s favor.’ In other words, divinely conferred charisma applied to highly revered figures.

Thus, Eastern Mediterranean Jews in the 1st century CE had notions of charis and charisma that embraced the range of meanings found in Greek culture and the spiritual meanings from the Hebrew Bible. From this linguistic legacy of fused cultures, in ‘1 Corinthians,’ Paul the Apostle introduced the meaning that the Holy Spirit bestowed charism and charismata, ‘the gift of God’s grace,’ upon individuals or groups. For Paul, ‘[t]here is a clear distinction between charisma and charis; charisma is the direct result of divine charis or grace.’

The gospels, written in the late first century, apply divinely conferred charisma to revered figures. Examples are accounts of Jesus’ baptism and of his transfiguration, in which disciples see him as radiant with light, appearing together with Moses and Elijah. Another example is Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as ‘full of grace.’ In these and other instances early Christians designated certain individuals as possessing ‘spiritual gifts,’ and these gifts included ‘the ability to penetrate the neighbor to the bottom of his heart and spirit and to recognize whether he is dominated by a good or by an evil spirit and the gift to help him to freedom from his demon.’

Believers characterized their revered religious figures as having ‘a higher perfection… a special Charisma.’ Then, with the establishment of the Christian Church, ‘the old charismatic gifts and free offerings were transformed into a hierarchical sacerdotal system.’ The focus on the institution rather than divinely inspired individuals increasingly dominated religious thought and life, and that focus went unchanged for centuries.

Additional changes began in the 17th century when church leaders, notably in the Latin tradition, accented ‘individual gifts [and] particular talents imparted by God or the Holy Spirit.’ The 19th century brought an increasing shift in emphasis toward individual and spiritual aspects of charisma; Protestant and some Catholic theologians narrowed the concept to superlative, out-of-the-ordinary, and virtuoso gifts. Simultaneously, the term became alienated from the much wider meaning that early Christians had attached to it. Still, the narrowed term projected back to the earlier period ‘A systematically reflected and highly differentiated understanding of charisma was often unconsciously infused into the Scriptures and writings of the church fathers, so that these texts were no longer read through the eyes of the authors.’

The basis for modern secular usage comes from German sociologist Max Weber. He discovered the term in the work of Rudolph Sohm, a German church historian whose 1892 ‘Kirchenrecht’ was immediately recognized in Germany as an epoch-making work. It also stimulated a debate between Sohm and leading theologians and religion scholars, which lasted more than twenty years and stimulated a rich polemical literature. The debate and literature had made charisma a popular term when Weber used it in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and in his Sociology of Religion.

Perhaps because he assumed that readers already understood the idea, Weber’s early writings lacked definition or explanation of the concept. In the collection of his works, Economy and Society edited by his wife, he identified the term as a prime example of action he labeled ‘value-rational,’ in distinction from and opposition to action he labeled ‘Instrumentally rational.’ Because he applied meanings for charisma similar to Sohm, who had affirmed the purely charismatic nature of early Christianity, Weber’s charisma would have coincided with the divinely conferred charisma sense defined above in Sohm’s work.

Weber introduced the personality charisma sense when he applied charisma to designate a form of authority. To explain charismatic authority he developed his classic definition: ‘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 as such 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.’

Here Weber extends the concept of charisma beyond supernatural to superhuman and even to exceptional powers and qualities. Sociologist Paul Joosse examined Weber’s famous definition, and found that: ‘through simple yet profoundly consequential phrases such as ‘are considered’ and ‘is treated,’ charisma becomes a relational, attributable, and at last a properly sociological concept…. For Weber, the locus of power is in the led, who actively (if perhaps unconsciously) invest their leaders with social authority.’

Although sociologists have been most active in applying Weber’s ideas, researchers in management and organizational behavior including John Antonakis and his colleagues, have reignited interest in charisma with respect to defining the term in unambiguous ways, finding ways to experimentally manipulate charisma, and to estimate the causal effects of charisma on performance outcomes in work and political settings. Recently, evolutionary psychologists have used game theory and costly signaling theory to study the functions of charismatic leadership in the evolution of human cooperation.

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