“Charisma Isn’t Leadership, and Other Lessons We Can Learn from Trump the Businessman”

“One can only hold the masses by habit or force” (Hitler, Hitler’s Table Talks, 335, 24th-25th February 1942).

What I want to suggest in this talk is that charismatic leadership is a tempting way to solve the problem of institutional compliance in a culture of outcomes-based ethics—that is, if the dominant mantra is survival of the fittest, might makes right, or some other system that says a process/action was ethical if it led to success (such as any version of what is generally inaccurately called “Darwinism”).  I argue that charismatic leadership, especially as imagined in current popular management discourse, is an attempt to ground compliance to institutional norms in normative agreement rather than legitimacy, tradition, or coercion (none of which are possible in an outcomes-based ethical system, such as is assumed in social Darwinism, the magic of the market, or the just world model). Because institutions grounded in such a system don’t have access to compliance arguments grounded in fairness, and coercion is expensive, charismatic leadership (which its emphasis on agency by proxy) appears a sensible rhetoric. Further, as imagined in current popular management discourse, charismatic leadership when coupled with the current dominant lay political theory, can easily create the conditions under which fascism seems the most sensible governmental system. Basically, my argument is: the combination of management rhetoric’s promotion of charismatic leadership as the ideal model, lay political theory about disagreement and deliberation being unnecessary, and the fantasy that all we need in government is a good businessman means that fascism will appeal to a lot of Americans.

I’ll begin with something not particularly controversial among political scientists/theorists: for an institution to be stable, people within that institution need to obey the laws. Why shouldn’t all of us in this room take all these chairs home and sell them on e-bay?

It’s conventional to characterize the various mobilizing ideas (that is, the ideas that mobilize you not to steal chairs) as:

What matters for these purposes is that the top three are often characterized as systems grounded in legitimacy, and the bottom three are grounded in authoritarianism (of various degrees).[1]

My first claim is that a culture of outcome-based ethics makes grounding any institution in legitimacy virtually impossible, leaving such institutions or cultures reliant on some version of authoritarianism, perhaps even fascism. I’ll argue that charismatic leadership is an attempt to square the circle, and get the kind of compliance that comes from ideal normative agreement by reframing blind obedience.

By outcome-based ethics, I mean any ethical system that says that triumph is the measure—that is, success is sufficient proof that success was merited (what social psychologists call the just world model). A culture or institution in which triumph is the measure of merit (the ends justify the means, might makes right, the proof is in the pudding, survival of the fittest) will not value setting ethical standards that apply across groups.  Fairness across groups is explicitly rejected in those moral systems as giving aid to people who don’t deserve it, as makers carrying the takers, or, at best, as unnecessary. Outcome-based ethics are generally profoundly individualistic—at most, they advise fairness within one’s in-group, but even that is shaky.

Corporations have yet another rhetorical/motivational problem. Increasingly, employees are expected to behave with more than mere compliance—to work more than 40 hours a week, to sacrifice health and homelife, more than they will be compensated. The ideal employee gives more to the corporation than she gets back in monetary compensation—the ideal employee values loyalty more than is fiscally rational. But this is not a symmetric relationship—the corporation is not expected to value loyalty to employees more than its fiscal bottom line. Business pundits generally justify businesses cracking open pension funds, closing down, firing people, minimizing benefits, and other practices on the grounds that a business should make decisions on purely economic grounds; but businesses don’t want employees reasoning the same way.

Look at it this way. Imagine a corporation that says that the best employee is the one who bills the most hours or sells the most units, regardless of whether the job really required that many hours or the customer needed that many units. If the incentives are such that anything short of breaking the law and getting caught is allowed, then on what grounds can the corporation say “When it comes to clients, all you should worry about is maximizing your profit, but don’t treat the organization that way”?

Were the “it’s okay to see everyone else as an opportunity to maximize your profit” a consistently applied ethic, the question wouldn’t be whether it’s right or wrong for us to steal the chairs and sell them on e-bay (whether we would want our possessions to be treated that way—an issue of fairness), but the possible profits, the likelihood of getting caught, the relative costs and benefits. If it’s okay to falsify your timesheet in order to get more money out of customers, on what grounds is it not okay to falsify your expenses in order to get more money out of your corporation?

It’s the same problem with a culture—if maximizing your share of goods is the major ethical dictum, then on what grounds should you obey the law? Only if you’re likely to get caught, if obeying the law directly benefits you, or if the costs of disobeying are higher than the benefits of law-breaking. Needless to say, that ends up being a chaotic culture.

There are two closely-related ways that cultures of outcome-based ethics can try to restrain the damage inherent to that ethical system: first, appeal to in-group/out-group ethics, mobilizing in-group identification to create loyalty to the in-group (so we won’t steal the chairs because A&M is our in-group, and we feel that stealing would be disloyal to that group—in other words, and this is the important part, replace the cultural strength provided by fairness with the power of in-group loyalty); second, get that in-group loyalty attached to a particular person (in other words, charismatic leadership).

For in-group loyalty to trump the message to maximize self-interest it has to be really powerful. The ideology has to promote

  • “the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;”

That is, the ideology has to say that looking out for yourself is really looking out for your group and vice versa. So, instead of it being an individualistic social Darwinism (if you succeed it’s proof that you deserved the success) but group-based. Instead of it being your right as an individual to dominate others, it has to be:

  • “the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”

It’s possible sometimes to get that level of commitment to a group—that’s what both political parties try to do at their conventions, with mixed success—but it’s unlikely for a corporation to be able to get people to identify with the corporation (especially in a world in which a dominant message is that employers don’t have to be loyal to employees past the point of profitability). Thus, the strategy more likely to work is to get identification with the leader of the corporation or with individual managers.

And so we’re extremely likely to have that strategy promoted through two other mobilizing passions:

  • “the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;”

This structure isn’t an invitation for everyone in the corporation to contribute to decision-making; it isn’t one in which all employees are asked to do whatever they think is the right thing to do—it’s hoping for a system in which people believe so much in the leader that they do whatever s/he says, and that they try to please the leader at all times by doing more than is required.

As such, it’s a kind of distortion of Kant’s ideal normative agreement—since all deliberation is handed over to the natural chiefs, then all the “perfect information” an individual needs for making their decisions is what the chieftain has decided is the correct course of action.

There are many disturbing moments in Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation and trial, and one that rattled one of the judges which is especially relevant to this argument is when, having boasted (and bemoaned) that he had the obedience of a corpse, he also claimed that he had also always lived by the Kantian notion that, as Eichmann said, “the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws” (Arendt 136). Carsten Lausten and Rasmus Ugilt explain Eichmann’s argument. For Eichmann,

“there existed no difference between the Fuhrer’s will and the moral law or, in more general terms, between legality and morality. He could thus recognize his subjection to Hitler’s will as an unproblematic act. He had personally sworn him the oath of allegiance, and this included an obligation toward his word of command (Arendt 1992, 149). The Fuhrer’s word was given immediately and imperatively. It had the power of the law (Gesetzkraft) and hence was not to be doubted (Arendt 1992, 148).” 

This is often discussed as Eichmann’s distortion of the Kantian principle but Arendt notes that it wasn’t his alone. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal attorney, had defined “the categorical imperative in the Third Reich” as “Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action, would approve it” (qtd. in Arendt 136). And, in fact, during the Nuremberg trials, other Nazis invoked Kant to defend the ethics of their action (or, more accurately, the ethics of their refusal to accept responsibility); but it was the “Kant” of Hans Frank, one in which the will of the chieftain is entirely integrated into the deliberations of individuals. It’s the “leadership principle” (or “Fuhrer principle”). It’s fascism.

And here I want to point out how charismatic leadership is described in much management discourse. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management (Ed. Nigel Nicholson, Pino G. Audia, and Madan M. Pillutla. Vol. 11: Organizational Behavior. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. p40-41) says there are three stages in charismatic leadership.

“The first stage concerns the leader’s sensitivity to the environment. Charismatic leaders can be distinguished from non-charismatic leaders in this stage by their heightened sensitivity to deficiencies and poorly exploited opportunities in the status quo.”

“Stage two of the leadership process concerns the act of formulating future goals or directions. Charismatic leaders are distinguished by a sense of strategic vision versus rational or purely tactical goals. Here the word vision refers to an idealized, highly aspirational goal that the leader wants the organization to achieve in the future. In articulating the vision, the charismatic leader’s verbal messages construct reality such that only the positive features of the future vision and the negative features of the status quo are emphasized. The status quo is usually presented as intolerable, and the vision is presented in clear specific terms as the most attractive and attainable alternative. Charismatic leaders’ use of rhetoric, high energy, persistence, unconventional and risky behavior, heroic deeds, and personal sacrifices all serve to articulate their own high motivation and enthusiasm, which then become contagious among their followers.”

“In the third and final stage of the leadership process – aligning followers’ actions to realize goals – leaders in general build in followers a sense of trust in their abilities and clearly demonstrate the tactics and behaviors required to achieve the organization’s goals. Charismatic leaders accomplish this by building TRUST through personal example and RISK TAKING and through unconventional expertise. They also engage in exemplary acts that are perceived by followers as involving great personal risk, cost, and energy.”

I want to emphasize that a leader who is charismatic is not necessarily someone engaged in charismatic leadership—charismatic leadership is a very specific kind of relationship between leader and follower. It is a method of policy determination that allows agency by proxy for the followers (they are agents only insofar as they identify with the leader).

Whether it’s good for businesses is much more up for argument than one might think from airport bookstores, but that isn’t really my point. My argument is that the shift to charismatic leadership is necessitated by the problem of how to motivate people when fairness across groups is precluded by the dominance of outcomes-based ethics, especially in a context of deliberately asymmetric ethical responsibilities (that is, the corporation wants loyalty from employees, but is neither promising nor delivering loyalty to them). And the result is a kind of leadership that crosses over into several of the characteristics of fascism.

Again, whether that’s good, bad, or even necessary for business isn’t my point. The problem for democracy arises when the dominance of this semi-authoritarian soft fascism gets entangled with the dominant lay political theory.

Unhappily, at least for theorists of democratic deliberation, a large number of Americans (perhaps most):

“want to distance themselves from government not because of a system defect but because many people are simply averse to political conflict and many others believe political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with government procedures. People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals, and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than with cacophonous special interests.” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 7)

At the base of this belief is that there is no such thing as legitimate political disagreement—the true course of action is obvious, and there is a kind of “normal American” whose interests politicians should be protecting. They don’t because they are influenced by “special interests”—“special interests” being “any interests other than mine.”

So, for instance, descendants of immigrants, who believe that America benefitted by immigration policies that allowed their ancestors in don’t want those same policies now—immigration policies that helped them were the right choice then; the same immigration policies, helping people exactly like their ancestors, are special interest.

This view delegitimates the interests of any group proposing alternate policies; it thereby delegitimates democracy itself. This view—that the interests of one group (my group) are the only legitimate ones—is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) advocating a one-party state. It is also implicitly eliminationist—the people who are claiming to have different interests don’t count, shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and should probably be expelled. Any system of government (or political thought) that relies on the sense that there is one kind of citizen whose desires are the only legitimate basis of public policy has at least one foot on the ladder of extermination.

In short, a large number of people believe that they are living in Kant’s ideal normative agreement, in which the only view that matters is theirs and the people like them, and they imagine that “people like them” all agree on the best government policies. It isn’t that they are motivated by hate for others, but simply that their common sense suggests to them that they are normal, they know what they want, and that the government should be organized to give normal people what they want most—if not all—of the time.”

And, of course, it doesn’t because that isn’t really how big institutions of any kind work (for one thing, “normal” people actually want very different things). The problem is that when it doesn’t, when policies are compromises, constrained, or have benefits that aren’t immediately obvious, instead of concluding that it’s actually complicated to come up with a good policy, people feel betrayed by their government because their narrative is that the obvious course has been ignored in favor of special interests—Real Americans aren’t getting what we deserve because not-Real Americans have corrupted the government. Real Americans are getting screwed over by non-American influences. Or, in other words, such people’s reaction to politics is based in

  • “the belief that one’s group is a victim,”
  • “dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of class conflict, and alien influences;”

Whether the implicit authoritarianism and proto-fascism of charismatic leadership is good, bad, necessary, or just a fad in business management isn’t my point. My point is that that model of leadership is, as Weber famously said, fraught and dangerous, and it is profoundly anti-democratic. Businesses don’t have to be democratic, so this model isn’t necessarily a problem in business.

But, it’s when the model is moved over to government that we have serious problems. And the fantasy that we should hand our government over to someone who has good decision-making capabilities, and that such a capability is demonstrated by being rich (as long as he’s in-group)[1]

There are four sets of ideologies at play here: 1) outcome-based ethics, but a group-based version (if the in-group succeeds, that’s proof that the in-group was entitled to success, and anything that enables that success is ethical); 2) management rhetoric about charismatic leadership; and 3) lay political theory that says we should empower someone who gets what “normal Americans” want; 4) the assumption that government needs a successful (in-group) businessman to lead it.

At that point, we can add up what political passions we have ready to be mobilized, and it’s (in bold)

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success; the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

So, the combination of management rhetoric’s promotion of charismatic leadership as the ideal model, lay political theory about disagreement and deliberation being unnecessary, and the fantasy that all we need in government is a good businessman means that fascism will appeal to a lot of Americans.

As  you can see, though, there are a lot of things missing. While there is a lot of media promoting these bolded notions, and major politicians running on the basis of those passions, we’re okay as long as there isn’t media claiming that the in-group is in danger of extermination, that exclusionary violence on the in-group is legitimate, that we are facing an overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions. In February of 1942, Hitler boasted to his tablemates:

“It’s enough for me to send for Lorenz and inform him of my point of view, and I know that next day all the German newspapers will broadcast my ideas. [….] With such collaborators at my side, I can make a sheer about-turn, as I did on 22nd June last, without anyone’s moving a muscle. And that’s a thing that’s possible in no country but ours.”(Hitler’s Table Talk, 22nd-23rd February 1942 (p 332).

Ruh roh.

[1] I have to point out that, if you look at that list, you see Aristotle’s three kinds of persuasion—deliberative, epideictic, and judicial—but let’s set that aside. Ideal normative agreement is unlikely under most conditions, since it assumes that disagreement is an illusion, and that everyone always already actually agrees, but it does get the deepest and most powerful levels of commitment. I’ll come back to this point, though.


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