Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Charisma & the Desire for Need Satisfaction

Leadership that inspires the movement of the masses is something that has always been highly intriguing to me. How is it that one person can motivate hundreds of thousands, even millions, of individuals, who in most cases they have never met personally, and inspire them to work towards a common goal? What is it about these leaders that enable them to do this? These massive movements, such as the Indian independence movement, Nazism, or the civil rights movements all had an epicenter of one individual- Gandhi, Hitler, and Dr. King respectively, but trickled out to thousands.

My thoughts on this subject were again brought to life this summer when I read Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven and again, more recently, with the fury of interest that the American public displayed with the initial announcement of Sarah Palin as the VP nominee.

The former, Under the Banner of Heaven, is a story that revolves around a murder that took place in the 80's, but is really a historical account of the birth and rapid growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), also known as Mormonism. Currently, Mormonism is the fastest spreading religious movement in the Western hemisphere with more that 11 million members, and is on track for becoming a major world religion (krakauer 3-4). How this movement came to be and continues to sprawl was the result of the initial action of one individual. The LDS church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, a man, who it has been inferred, was the embodiment of a charismatic individual if there ever was one. "He [Joseph Smith]," Krakauer writes, "was imbued with that exceedingly rare magnetism - an extraordinary spiritual power that always seems to be wrapped in both great mystery and great danger" (Krakauer 112). A firsthand account described Smith as follows, "The zest for living that he radiated never failed to inspire his own people with a sense of the richness of life. They followed him slavishly and devotedly, if only to warm themselves in the glow of his presence" (krakauer 113).

These descriptions beg to question whether it truly is solely this charismatic essence that is responsible for these movements. Is charisma a requisite needed in order to rally a significant following such as this? Acting as a magnet, as Krakauer delineates, that attracts followers? I would argue that, as Choi does, charisma certainly plays a vital role in these occurrences, but it is not the only role that is at play here. Another element that propels these movements is the potential satisfaction of a human need(s) - (in some cases, this can actually be thought of as an extension of situational theory). Choi writes, "a charismatic leader generally generates positive individual and organizational outcomes by displaying behaviors that stimulate followers' needs" and I agree with this. In each of these situations there has been a human craving among many individuals, be it equal rights, or security, or the sense that life is being lived "right", that needs to be satisfied. Charismatic leadership, it seems, can be thus understood as a dynamic force whose fundamental backbone responsible for initiating social movement is the combination of a 'Charismatic Leader' plus 'A Purpose that Satisfies a Need'. I do not think that there are the only factors contributing to a movement's continuation, however. Various factors must occur in order to keep the momentum going- to highlight one: the role that followers play. Through their interactions with each other and outsiders, they have the ability to influence and increase the movement. By passing on "tales" of and interactions with their "great leader", followers have the ability to elevate their leaders to legendary status and in doing so attract more followers.

This is but one facet of the evolution of social movements, of which I don't have space to go further, but it is interesting to explore the core elements at play that allow these movements to get underway and sustain themselves.

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