Charisma: Dangerous?

cha·ris·ma (kuh-RIZ-muh). Noun.

1.Theology. a divinely conferred gift or power.

2. a spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.
3. the special virtue of an office, function, position, etc., that confers or is thought to confer on the person holding it an unusual ability for leadership, worthiness of veneration, or the like.

(Source: Dictionary.com)

I was completely exhausted when I hit the hairdresser’s chair on Saturday, as you might recall.

It was crazy. I was practically asleep the whole time while she did my hair.

But for some strange reason, I remember hearing her co-worker and friend – working on another head a few feet away – gabbing to someone on the phone. And when she got off, she was talking about this friend of hers, who I guess was a charmer. I don’t remember all the words being used to describe this fellow. But for some reason when I came out of my haze ever so briefly, the word “charisma” was tossed in the air.

And all I remember saying was, “Charisma can be a dangerous thing”, before slipping back into my nap-like state.

The others all had a good laugh about it.

Perhaps it was one of those nanosecond, subconscious declarations my intellect had, without me really thinking about what I was saying when I said it.

But now that I’m awake, it kind of has me thinking: charisma’s that one quality a lot of people are drawn to in a person, or other people. Except for perhaps the hardest of the heads, the most cynical of cynics, most people can’t completely resist a charmer.

If it’s used for good- no harm, no foul. That person is just a nice person who has the gift of attracting lots of people and captivating their attention.

But think about it: how many times have you read stories – in books, newspaper articles or magazines – about leaders of organizations or religious sects. Aren’t they sometimes referred to as “charismatic” leaders? The word sounds alluring, but the connotation in that context never really sounds positive.

I just did a search on the term. According to Wikipedia, the German political economist and sociologist Max Weber had a special term, called charismatic authority, which he defined as “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” And he applied the term “charisma” to:

“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 are such as 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 […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”

I’ve not an expert or widely read on Max Weber, so I’m not going to pretend I am, or get into an even longer post about it. But, according to the list I found on Wikipedia, if his criteria were applied to leaders in history, examples of charismatic leaders would include people like Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Bill Clinton, or Lech Walesa.

So also on that list are people like Jim Jones, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Sukarno.

I’m sure the way I grouped these leaders, it’s up for debate how people feel about them. And that’s the other thing about charisma. Whether they’re still here, or maybe after they’ve departed, they probably still elicit strong feelings.

But make no mistake – charisma is definitely a quality that can be used as a powerful tool, or as a weapon, if placed in the wrong hands.

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