The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: In about 750 words, this entry defines charisma, presents Max Weber's conception of the term, and concludes by emphasizing charisma's precariousness as a form of authority.
The entry begins by explaining how an adulterated form of charisma has become absorbed into popular usage. The term derives from theology and translates as 'a divine gift of grace.' Max Weber adopted the term for sociological use and extended its meaning to refer to a kind of leadership based on extraordinary personal qualities.
For Weber, there are three kinds of authority--charismatic, traditional and rationalistic or legal. The charismatic leader defies tradition and, perhaps even more importantly, demands obedience on irrational grounds. Thus, according to Weber, a conventionally elected leader can never be construed as charismatic simply due to popularity: this is too loose a usage of the term.
The entry next briefly discusses how the charismatic leader operates. Such a leader does not have an administrative staff, but rather a devoted inner circle. Members of the inner circle receive their positions based on the intensity of their devotion rather than the level of their expertise. Members of the inner circle do not adhere to any routine, but rather must carry out the will of the charismatic leader on an ad hoc basis.
In conclusion, the entry considers the precariousness of charisma as a form of authority. According to Weber, charisma can exist in its pure state only briefly, because of its intensely personal nature. The problem of succession often speeds up charisma's metamorphosis.