Photograph by Artur Voznenko via Unsplash

Charisma: Can we be misled? How do we know who to follow?

July 9, 2024

“And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”  (Matthew 4:25)

Kids today call it “rizz” by which they mean style, charm, or attractiveness. Rizz—slang for charisma—is the 2023 Oxford University Press word of the year. Merriam-Webster defines charisma as “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure… a special magnetic charm or appeal.” He has a magnetic personality. She has a magical charm. People follow them, admire them, believe them, and assign them credibility. People we view on television are likely to possess rizz, as do politicians on the stump, preachers in the pulpit or on TV, salespeople, celebrities, athletic or music stars, some teachers, and a few folks around you.

Psychology Today notes that “charisma’s most fundamental power may lie in the effect it has on everyone else. The ability to move others is an asset for leading people toward shared objectives. Charisma can also have a dark side, insofar as narcissistic individuals and predators use their powers to manipulate others… A variety of factors can make a person charismatic. They include but are not limited to: confidence, exuberance, optimism, expressive body language, and a passionate voice. People with charisma are often enthusiastic and speak with assertiveness.”

Can people be misled by others with charisma? Oh yeah. Some of the world’s most authoritarian and despotic leaders possess charisma in spades, and people follow them in droves. Are those people stupid? Or is it just that charisma holds power over the masses? This could be a critical question in an election year. It affects us in other ways as well.

A colleague of mine in parish ministry commented offhandedly that “Ministry is 95% personality.” Charisma. Those with the magical personality – the magnetic appeal, the twinkle in the eye, and the gleam in the smile – can use it for both good and bad, and some can get away with murder because of their personality. It may be like how former President Donald Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” There are charismatic clergy who can break half the rules of the ordained minister’s code and get away with it. In workplaces, schools, families, churches, social organizations, and among friends, there are people with rizz who know they can get away with murder. And people follow them.

Is charisma necessary to be successful? Not at all. Not every leader is charismatic, and some research suggests that business leaders with the highest ratings on charisma are not necessarily the most effective. A good example comes from Jim Collins, author of the book “Good to Great.” Collins studies companies which met criteria as good and successful companies, and then narrowed down the few which were truly great. He found that there were charismatic leaders in business, but the great companies were often led by leaders who were not charismatic. In an interview, Collins said, “Now, I’ve always been mystified by our addiction to the charismatic-leader model. I just don’t get it. If you think about it, think about how many destructive things in the world have happened because of charismatic leadership. Hitler was charismatic and he led his nation right down the wrong path. Mao was charismatic, right? Being charismatic and wrong is a really bad combination.”

Reflecting on his research for the book, Collins added, “the thing that we found is that most of the Good to Great leaders were not charismatic…What we learned with [them] is they did not have an inspiring personality. What they had were inspired standards…So, [they] didn’t try to motivate to inspire personality. They set very inspired standards in keeping with who they were.” This is significant research and may apply to leadership in all kinds of institutions, including the church. It is the institution’s standards that matter most in the long run, not the personality of the leader. A charismatic leader may come through like a flash in the pan but, as Collins noted in his interview, that is not sustainable. The only thing that is sustainable is the standards.

Perhaps it is human nature to be attracted to charisma, even to the point of not thinking but simply feeling. Jesus once again led us back to a life of the mind when he asked us to discern, to evaluate critically, and to judge – not by the sizzle but by the fruits. You will know them by their fruits.

We might wonder if Jesus possessed charisma. Crowds followed him. There must have been some magical, magnetic quality that inspired those around him to follow. Look at how he called his disciples by saying ever so simply “follow me,” and they dropped what they were doing and immediately followed him (Mark 1:16-20). 

We wonder if the false prophets about whom Jesus warned had charisma. They too attracted others to follow: “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” (Matthew 24:11). 

Can we be misled by a charismatic leader? How can we know who to follow? How to tell the difference? They seem so real… an engaging sense of humor, piercing eye contact, lively enthusiasm signaling the passion of their belief, charming stories to bolster their points, overflowing self-confidence, a winsome smile, and facts and a message we can understand – whether right or wrong, truth or lies. They beckon us to follow and, frankly, we are attracted to them and therefore their message. How can we tell if we are being led astray? 

Jesus answered that question, which may help us to discern if we are influenced toward wrong values by a charismatic leader: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16). 

  • Jesus likely considered fruits as the Great Commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. (Matthew 22:37-39). When asked to define neighbor, Jesus redefined it as the one who helps a person in need. And to love is to care truly for the other person’s highest and best interests.
  • Jesus likely would have considered fruits as his Mount Everest of human ethics, the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31).
  • The Apostle Paul provided a list of fruits: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self‑control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 RSV). When trying to gauge the message of charismatic people, we do well to consider if they are patient with people, kind even to those who disagree with them, striving to be a good person, gentle in their treatment of all people without exception, and if they have their ego under control. Charisma and narcissism are not uncommon bedfellows, although one does not necessitate the other. Everyone has an ego and for leaders, it is often bigger. The question is… can they keep it in control?

The leader of the great company is the one who inspires the highest and best standards.

The teacher of the year should be the one who educates best.

The true pastoral leader should be the one who guides worshippers into an encounter with the Divine.

The kid in school who wants to be your friend is the one who is genuinely interested in your welfare as well as their own.

The politician running for office ought to have a character of goodness, kindness, patience with people, gentle in his or her language, and have his or her ego under control.

The staff member who is your colleague or one whom you supervise should be a sincere team player, and participate equally in shared goals.

The basketball player, like the family member or neighbor, should be one who does not hog the ball or the floor but who collaborates with the team.

The sales rep who has the goal of a sale for the company should still be one who cares for what works best for you.

Perhaps it is human nature to be attracted to charisma, even to the point of not thinking but simply feeling. Jesus once again led us back to a life of the mind when he asked us to discern, to evaluate critically, and to judge – not by the sizzle but by the fruits. You will know them by their fruits.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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