Charismatic leadership, closely linked to transformational leadership, has gathered attention in recent years as a leadership style that influences individuals and teams to achieve superior organisational outcomes. In direct contest, many leaders, especially those who are inexperienced, use a transactional approach of reward and punishment to achieve a result. But those who use vision and inspiration to transform the motivations of others from self-interests to collective interests leave a resounding mark that remains ingrained in the minds of those influenced. Transforming motivations does not just mean leading a team to success by accomplishing specified and implied tasks using available resources. Rather, influencing people to become emotionally drawn and committed to the leader’s views creates willingness to deviate from individual biases to focus on a higher purpose.

Historical examples of charismatic leaders, such as President Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, can overwhelm the learning leader into believing charismatic leadership is an approach reserved for the “anointed”. This essay will explore how transformational qualities can be within all leaders once they understand:

  • the human environment of self and others
  • how to communicate a vision that is compelling
  • the importance of valuing the efforts of others
  • how to convincingly emphasize a better future

Furthermore, this article will present these conditions within two crisis settings: the 2019 NW Queensland Floods and the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires. These examples provide evidence that charismatic traits manifest in leaders, even those who are not naturally charismatic.

Recognise the situation to mobilise people

There are many definitions of leadership, but all end up with the same outcome that describe an influence on others. Specifically, Conger (2015) captures the conditions that encourage the emergence of charismatic leadership. Firstly, he identifies the need for a leader to have extraordinary qualities that are projected or perceived. This may seem daunting, and many people could rule this out as a style to develop, but Conger explains that societies and groups define differently what extraordinary qualities are. Therefore, “extraordinary” can be within the reach of many.

Secondly, he presents a discussion that shows charismatic leadership arises in times of turmoil and crisis. Duress can be a catalyst that prods leaders to expand their immediate interests and lean into a situation to mobilise people. Although, contrary to this, Conger contemplates an alternate view and concedes that a leader’s personality and relationships, not necessarily the situation, are key elements that categorise a transformational leader. In this form, a leader uses charisma to telegraph a self-generated persona to attract and influence. Notwithstanding this, the following crises illustrate how a situation can create momentum that allows leaders to discover a charismatic approach.

2019/2020 Bushfires. In 2020, the Australian Government made a historical decision to Call Out the Army Reserve to support respective States’ emergency services in response to the Australian bushfire emergency. Once activated, the Reserve force responded at short notice into unknown and quickly changing circumstances. The range of diplomacy, information, military and economic factors generated strategic pressures that aimed to address the communities’ urgent dilemmas. Once ordered, the Call Out required leadership that was responsive, collaborative and conscious of the dire circumstances. A well-known strength of the Reserve force is its intimate bond with the community from which it is drawn. This immediately set a climate of commitment, compassion and motivation; qualities that support Conger’s crisis argument and introduces community affiliation as the extraordinary quality that underpinned the leadership approach used by leaders. Using this, leaders of all ranks were able to rally the citizens’ spirit and motivate fellow soldiers to achieve inspirational outcomes.

2019 NW Queensland Floods. Similar conditions existed for another military task force in 2019 when it delivered aid to rural communities during the NW Queensland Floods. The task force was a modest organisation of about 120 people faced with a task of disposing about 500,000 animal carcasses that had perished in the floods. The task force commander quickly identified several considerations that involved a large geographic dispersion, a lack of agricultural knowledge amongst his team, an urgent timeline and governmental interest at local, state and federal levels. Consequently, planning shifted to recognise that a local solution would best meet the needs of the rural communities. A leadership approach was exercised to motivate and mobilise the citizens that became its own workforce to dispose of the carcasses. The task force became supporters and messengers to inform, plan and act as the link to Government. This unifying leadership gathered the interests of five local shires to harmonise state and federal governments to coordinate respective jurisdictions.

These two crises are examples that show leaders can transform people from a self-interest mindset to one that puts collective interests first. The Bushfire disaster showed a leadership outcome that stimulated individuals’ commitment to help others. Likewise, the leadership result during the NW Queensland Floods calmed, prepared and aligned communities. Having described the leadership opportunities during crisis conditions, I will now explore how leaders can seize that opportunity to lead in a charismatic manner.

Emergence of charismatic leadership

Militaries are based on hierarchical structures and expected to function best when directed, controlled, rewarded and disciplined when appropriate. Sure, soldiers are required to act instinctively and with superior judgement, especially in the face of an adversary. However, rigid structures that are susceptible to bureaucracy can lose sight of (and not appreciate) elements like vision, inspiration, arousal and emotional attachment. These transformational aspects elevate the needs, values and aspirations of individuals to a greater good (Shamir, House & Arthur, 1993). The 2019/2020 bushfires and 2019 floods were underpinned by selflessness and leadership, which required high levels of emotional intelligence to communicate a message that inspired hope for a better future.  

2019/2020 Bushfires. When the Australian Army’s 2nd Division was Called Out to form joint task forces (JTF), the Army Reserve needed to gather its people from Christmas vacation, build joint (Army, Airforce and Navy) teams, integrate with civilian emergency services and establish processes from the ground up. All this was achieved while relying on the fundamental strength of a shared purpose to help fellow Australians. The mechanism to unify the team was a leadership approach, without knowing it, that met Shamir, House & Arthur’s (1993) criteria for charismatic leadership:

  • Leaders increased the intrinsic attraction of being involved by reinforcing organisational values to exemplify Good Soldiering (Australian Army, 2020)
  • Leaders built the self-esteem and self-worth of soldiers by using the belief of what they were about to do would save lives and property
  • Leaders increased personal appeal towards the benefits of mission accomplishment by reinforcing the value of teamwork
  • Leaders instilled confidence that a positive outlook was possible for disaster victims
  • Leaders demonstrated personal commitment by encouraging a common vision to restore the livelihoods of Australians

This manner of leadership allows any leader, whether naturally charismatic or not, to transform another person from self-interests to collective interests. Leaders who complement this with a positive, reassuring and confident communication style can influence followers to believe in a future with possibility.

2019 NW Queensland Floods. The relief for the floods was led by a JTF based on the 16th Aviation Brigade, which was another first. The Aviation headquarters had never commanded a JTF and its structure was not staffed and equipped to perform such a role. However, the same leadership method explained for the bushfire case study intuitively emerged as the inspirational approach to inform and motivate the JTF and communities. Importantly, the task force commander emphasised the value of leader behaviour and its effect to rally human spirit and shape it into a self-realising power to rise above adversity. Shamir, House & Arthur (1993) summarise how to create charismatic leader behaviours:

  • Become a representative character to exemplify the traits, values and beliefs that act as a point of reference for others. Deploying to NW Queensland exposed soldiers to hard working rural families, so soldiers needed to understand how locals lived and build trust to reassure them of the military’s ability.  
  • Relate the leader’s vision to historical similarities. The JTF commander used his experience and knowledge from OP Pakistan Assist as well as personal memories of another bushfire event several years earlier and how that Mayor addressed community needs.
  • Display and communicate organisational citizenship behaviour. In this case, a rigid military solution would have not satisfied long-term outcomes like employment, local commerce and restocking herds. The JTF provided planning expertise, instilled confidence and empathised with locals. This, integrated with collaborative and flexible mission assistance, created trustworthy relationships that focused on people and not processes.

Charismatic leadership should not be a mystery

These two case studies demonstrate that charismatic leadership need not only be used by those who have interesting stories, attract the limelight when entering a room or become the captain of every team they join. Rather, leaders who are astute and assess the environment, consider the audience and weigh up the priorities of a mission can have a transforming effect. Being trusted, competent and looking beyond task orientation is a leadership investment that inspires people to follow. This is not reserved for crises only but reflecting on leadership experiences gained during times of crises can uncover lessons that will stretch leaders to develop their charismatic side. So, give it a go. Be inspirational. Find your extraordinary quality or skill. Have a vision and communicate it convincingly to others so they can own it as though it was their own.