The Dark Side of Charisma

17 February 2007 at 3:51 pm Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Entrepreneurship has been described as charismatic leadership or charistmatic authority. But what exactly is charisma?

The WSJ’s Saturday edition reviews Philip Rieff’s posthumously published Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Rieff, the distinguished cultural sociologist who taught at Brandeis, Berkeley, Harvard, and Penn, began the book in the late 1960s but went on to other projects, completing it just before his death earlier this year. Reviewer Adam Wolfson describes the book as a jeremiad against popular culture, much like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.

Like Bloom, Rieff puts forward a compelling critique of modernity, focusing in his case on Weber’s reworking of the religious notion of charisma into a secular, “neutral” category and thus emptying it of religious significance.

In Judaism and Christianity, “charisma” had a very specific meaning — the Greek root suggests “divine favor.” The quality might even be accompanied by miracle-making. But the key to its power was renunciation. In Judaism, as Rieff explains, charisma was tied to the notion of the Jewish covenant with God, a covenant that required its adherents to resist their more natural or animal instincts and obey certain laws and prohibitions. The same, with some modifications, could be said of “charisma” in Christian understanding. As such, charisma was not a rare possession attached to a few lucky people but a quality open to all who obeyed divine commands — in particular, the prohibitive “Thou Shalt Nots” that make genuine culture and human inwardness possible by restricting man’s self-destructive impulses.

Today, of course, charisma is used to describe a unique quality possessed only by exceptional individuals. We see this in the entrepreneurship literature, where particular people are said to be “entrepreneurial” or to have an “entrepreneurial” personality. (This contrasts with the “Austrian” concept in Knight, Mises, and Kirzner, in which entrepreneurship is a universal attribute of all purposeful human behavior.)

According to Rieff, Weber’s redefinition had significant cultural repercussions:

Weber claimed to be only describing a certain social type. But, as Rieff argues, he had in fact launched a furious attack on the West’s religious roots, what Rieff called “this fundamental faith/guilt order.” Charisma’s renunciatory teaching implied a strict moral division; it acknowledged a waywardness in man that could only be overcome by divine guidance and an effort of will. (Guilt was the emblem of failure.) To lose the true meaning of “charisma,” Rieff warned, was to lose something fundamental about man and his place in the order of things.

Here is more about Rieff’s late-career work. Here is a practitioner-oriented piece on the dangers of overreliance on charismatic leadership.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Cultural Conservatism, Entrepreneurship, Management Theory.

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