Ever wonder what it is about cult leaders that draw people to them? This week, join your hosts Rachel, Steph, and Jacqueline as they dive deep into the charismatic leader and what makes people so willing to follow them, even when their ideas might seem radical or outlandish to outsiders. We discuss the specific terminology surrounding “cults,” if charisma is a dangerous characteristic, and whether or not the charismatic leader archetype is gendered.
You’re listening to Nearly Numinous. This week, Rachel, Steph and I are talking about the charismatic leader. This idea stemmed from how we talk about quote-unquote cult leaders, or as we’ll clarify, in a moment, any new religious movement leaders. But we’ve noticed that anyone in the public sphere, especially those who wield a lot of power tend to be very charismatic. We want to chat about what that means and why it’s relevant to people interested in the study of religion.
So before we get into the bulk of this episode, we wanted to kind of clarify our language a little bit. So we are going to talk about the charismatic leader, which is often stemmed from our discussion on cults, quote-unquote cults. But we should maybe explain why the term cult will not be heavily used here and why we prefer to use terms such as new religious movements instead. So the term cult is written with negative imagery. As soon as something gets labelled a cult, we steer clear of it, because we associate that with corruption, violence, or any sub-genre of those two things. When you come into an environment, like a religious studies class, most people are discouraged from labelling something as a cult. This is even more so when you approach it with the media. Much of this is because of like that kind of automatic trigger that goes off, and we start assuming that it’s a dangerous environment, and we associate negative language with it, it then becomes really hard for smaller and newer religious movements; they quickly get labelled as a cult, because there may be different or have a more unique approach that we don’t see in typical world religions. So then we jump to label things that way, because of the characteristics that it shows such as being small, led by a charismatic leader, and sometimes, but not always, will be rejecting mainstream society. But just because they have these traits, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to come with corruption and violence that we always assume that it does. So because of that, as people who work in and study in the field of religion, we prefer to call these new religious movements or you’ll also hear us say and NRMs. The difference there lies in the preconceived notion that a cult is a bad thing. And not all new religious movements need to be considered bad or dangerous. So moving into more of the bulk of the episode, I guess, when it comes to some new religious movements, one of the key attributes of them is that they’re often founded based on the philosophy or worldview of a single person, and they’re often referred to as being a charismatic leader. So we wanted to focus in on this idea today and look at exactly what it means to be a charismatic leader. And if it’s unique to something like a cult or a new religious movement.
So a charismatic leader is the person who has charisma. And charisma is a characteristic associated with magnetic personalities. So people who can draw you in and make you listen to them with the way that they speak and to present themselves. It’s often less of an intellectual attraction, but not necessarily. But there is this base level of an instinctual attraction, so you’re just drawn to this person. instinctually charismatic people seem to gravitate towards leadership roles because of their ability to influence and guide others.
This style of leadership is often used to help define what may be a quote-unquote cult in sociology and social psychology. Called specialists and licensed therapists Rachel Bernstein, who was consulted in the documentary “Seduced” about the cult NXIVM, says there are three types of cult leaders: the delusional martyr example Marshall Applewhite of heaven’s gate in San Diego; the preacher-turned-egomaniac who gradually comes to realize their charismatic potential and takes advantage of it, for example, Jim Jones of the People’s Temple in Jonestown; and the hard-and-fast narcissist, example, Keith Raniere of NXIVM. I do want to note that these are all examples of bad new religious movements which have popularly come to be known as cults and bad examples of charismatic leaders. But like we were talking about earlier, just because you’re a charismatic leader does not automatically mean you are bad or can use your quote-unquote powers for bad.
So Rachel, what makes those examples bad examples?
Well, the ones that I noted like Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, and NXIVM, they were all examples of dangerous, vividly violent, abusive; the leaders of these quote-unquote cults used and abused their power to hurt others, control others in a way that was detrimental to their heir personal health. And well, in the case of Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown, a lot of people died because of it.
Yeah, there were, both of those had mass suicides, right?
Yep. I think Heaven’s Gate was like thirty-nine people maybe and then Jonestown was nearly a thousand. But the charismatic leader is not special to NRMs. A charismatic leader can be anyone who has these traits. Even in your own social settings, you probably know people who you claim are charismatic. Maybe you remember someone from school who was popular or a class clown, maybe you have a boss who seemed born for the job. Maybe you have a friend who seems to be a leader of the friend group. These could all be called examples of charismatic leaders. For example, one of my old housemates was a super charismatic person. I could pretty much listen to her talk all day long. And just the way she spoke and her level of conviction, and whatever she said, made me want to listen more and made me more likely to agree with what she thought. What about you guys? Do you have any examples of charismatic people in your lives?
I always give my Sims the trait of charismatic.
Yeah, I play Sims 3 a lot and that’s one of the traits that you can give them. And for some reason, I always pick it. And I think that’s just because I personally am not charismatic. So I like to, you know, pretend [laughs]
How does that affect them their lives?
They make friends, very easy. They are always impressing their boss. Things like that.
I feel like life might be a bit easier if we were all charismatic.
It would be
Jacqueline, what about you?
Yeah. When I think about charismatic leaders, I think about two specific people, both from a camp that I used to work at. Both were men, so that’s something we can talk about a little bit later is do men tend to gravitate towards charismatic roles more often, or do we just notice them are often? But these two individuals, were just the sort of people that could change the atmosphere of a room without realizing they were doing it. Luckily, they were both good-natured. So they weren’t like the people we were just talking about in the cults previously. They would often shift the atmosphere of the room with their laughter. And they were also quite charming, and had a way of making people feel really important and valued when they talked to them. They’re also really encouraging people, and helped people believe more in themselves, which was really a valuable thing in a camp setting where, where there was lots of young adults trying out new roles and skills and stuff. They sometimes didn’t notice that they had the power that they had over others. So sometimes this could be a bad thing, say if they accidentally laughed inappropriately at someone, because then especially younger staff might be more likely to also join in on that. And so sometimes that was something that they had to be a little bit more aware of. But for the most part, it was, it was a good thing. Sometimes some of the young female camp counsellors tended to develop crushes on these two. ANd the guys didn’t generally notice this, which sometimes lead to awkward situations. But just in general, it was quite a positive thing. And they really encouraged other people by using their charisma.
When you’re saying how it sometimes like maybe they’d laugh at the wrong moment, that reminds me a lot of like, how bullies like class bullies sometimes seem to have a lot of charisma, like they can get people on their side, even if they say a joke that isn’t very funny, or whatever they like, they tend to pull people over to their idea, get other people to ignore, make fun of others. Like I’ve definitely noticed that in my school life.
I think that has a lot to do with as well that kind of debate that I think we’re going to it’s going to be woven through I think this whole episode that: is there a good charismatic leader and a bad charismatic leader or is it by nature, one or the other? You know? because I think, you know, there’s that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And the charismatic leader has that great power, you know? So Jacqueline, I know you had mentioned as well that oftentimes when we do this kind of exercise, especially in like religion classes at Queen’s, where we all have done our undergrad and Master’s… well, where we have done our Master’s, it often gets brought up the idea of the Head Gael, so to kind of frame this a little bit. If you did not go to Queen’s, you’d have zero idea what we’re talking about, but basically during orientation week, there are orientation leaders and they’re called Gaels because we are the Queen’s Gaels. And this is a person that is supposed to lead you answer any questions you have about what it’s like to be at Queen’s, kind of start you off on your social life at university, all that kind of stuff. And the way that we talk about orientation week often gets attributed to the same language that we use to talk about things like cults, or… especially dangerous new religious movements, but also even just like non-dangerous ones. That being said, things like hazing and stuff like that are not, just are not encouraged anymore. Obviously, things like that still happen. Because it’s university students, they’re going to do whatever they want to do. But this is another example of like a leader who is very charismatic and guiding people creating that sort of environment. And I think it’s also an example of how we use certain language to talk about even personal experiences like going to orientation week, and we attribute it to very like, quote, unquote, cult-like experiences.
Yeah. So I think an important distinction when looking at the charismatic leader is that while a lot of charismatic people end up being in leadership positions, not all leaders are charismatic people. So I was in a class that was talking about the Head Gael, as potentially charismatic person. And there’s a lot of debate about: “are all Head Gaels necessarily charismatic?” And kind of the answer that came out is, yes, maybe, like a lot of them probably are, but probably not everybody who has ever been a Head Gael fits this description of a charismatic leader. And so while people with charisma tend to gravitate towards these, these positions of leadership in institutions, so like Queen’s, charismatic people get their authority from their persona rather than just from this institutionalized power.
I think something that’s interesting to me with like bringing up this example that… I think both Rachel and I think have experienced Queen’s orientation week more directly than Jacqueline has, but you’ve still seen it. But I think also kind of associating myself within that, I hated orientation week so much, it was not for me, I always tried to be the cool alt chick. [laughs] And so for me, people like Head Gaels or other orientation leaders, they just didn’t do it for me, I didn’t fall under their whole like charismatic thing, because it wasn’t kind of my audience, or I wasn’t their audience, so to speak, which I think also kind of is important to note, because obviously, not all charismatic leaders have a hold over everybody.
Yeah. And that’s something I think it has a lot to do with context. And with political leaders, I think it has to do a lot with a particular political context. So often, if we look at people who we know, historically, were charismatic, we often realize this from the fact that they were often outside of traditional forms of power and then due to the political situation, they kind of gained a following due to their ideas and then they ended up in these leadership roles. So a classic one we’re probably going to talk about a little bit more is Hitler. So Hitler, if you’ve ever heard any of his speeches, you know, that he was very charismatic, you can kind of just like, feel it, when watching his speech, his speeches, and just seeing how the people watching him would just get enthralled with what he was saying. But the thing with Hitler is that he didn’t come from a place originally of being in power. And there’s lots of historians that look at pre World War Two Germany, and wonder, hey, like pre World War Two Germany was quite economically, like, unstable. And a lot of the reason why Hitler’s ideologies in Germany were so popular was because people were desperate, like they were, they were burning their money to cook their food, you know, because, like the German… I forget what the German money is called, but it was just, it was just doing so poorly, internationally and locally, like, they had a market crash. And so they just like weren’t doing very well. And so in comes Hitler, and these people are so desperate, that he gained such popularity and that’s eventually how he came into power. And the same goes for people like Trump. So I think if it kind of like through the analogy of a fire, so in these situations, there’s often like fuel waiting, and it just needs the spark of the right charismatic person in the right moment to start these large movements or cause these ideologies to really spread.
I think the important part there to note that it seems to be I think, one of the traits of a charismatic leader and one of the things that the tools that they need to use to actually gain a certain amount of power, regardless of good or bad, is trying to fit fill a need that people want, right? Or a want or a need that people have. And for someone like political leaders, they’re speaking to people’s primal needs, with something that I keep thinking of is people like influencers or YouTubers and stuff. They’re being used for really powerful marketing campaigns because they’re charismatic and they use their charisma, they use what they have. And then they pair it with using the kind of desires of other people to sell them products, right? So that whole kind of environment requires not only the charismatic leader to know how to use their charisma, but it also requires them to understand where there is a need, so that they can fill that need.
Sorry, just to go back to Frosh week for a sec. I think one of the reasons that orientation week at universities is so, so successful for so many people, is because it’s fulfilling a need that a lot of like new students feel. So I also didn’t have a good experience with Frosh week first year, but I think it was less because I was like anti-Frosh week and more because I was super scared. But then the second year around, I actually became a Gael
What does that mean, by the way, I’ve just I’m still quite unfamiliar with a lot of these terms?
So um, there are, there’s a bit of a hierarchy to orientation leaders. So in arts and science faculty, there is the frosh at the bottom. Then there is a Gael and they are in charge of a group of frosh maybe like fifteen people. And then their OC’s, which I think are orientation coordinators, and they are in charge of a group of like, like fifteen, twenty-ish, gales, and then there is above those OC’s, there’s the Head Gael who is in charge of different groups of orientation coordinators.
Yeah, it’s, like looking back It is very culty and I had a much better time around the second time when I was a Gael. I like definitely felt more like I belonged. There was a lot of like group activities that made you feel like “you are a Gael now, this is like your purpose for right now. And you are going to be doing so much good by helping out frosh by like helping a lot of people, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,” kinda just like isolating you for a whole week, called Pre-wWeek, where you get ready for Frosh week.
I hated that so much.
You were a Gael, too?
Okay, no, so I worked on campus pretty much every summer since second year. And I remember, I still remember I worked in the Career Services Office and my window backed out into one of the courtyards. And all during the week leading up to orientation week was just the stupid orientation songs and cheers being sung over and over again. And I was like, “I’m just trying to do my work.” I was I was miserable. I was so miserable. I hate it’s so much!
It’s so different though when you’re in it. Like, so I hate yelling I hate cheering and I hate dancing. But when I was a Gael, I was like, “Yes, I’m so into this!” because I thought like, like, “Wow, I belong with a bunch of people who like want to do this thing for frosh, like want to make people’s frosh weeks better than like mine,” was for example. It was like this sense of belonging that like my OC and their had Gael was providing for me that like I wanted to provide for like, you know, the frosh below me. It was such a very interesting dynamic.
I just want to touch on what Rachel was just mentioning about these different layers within well, Frosh week. But this is also a common thing that we see in these quote-unquote cults. In specifically when we look at cult from a sociological angle, so in sociology, and in social psych, they actually do continue to use the word “cult” because there isn’t the same sort of like good-bad stereotypes that there would be when looking at it from religious studies from a religious studies angle, but
Or even like a general public angle as well
Yeah, yeah. So when you’re looking at it from sociology, you’re looking at, like, why do these groups form and how do they form and so what’s very common in these cults is, other than the charismatic leader is there’s often these layers. So you start off as just like maybe a frosh. And then you kind of buy-in a little bit and then you move to the next layer. And then in this next layer, you maybe look at initiating other people and getting other people to join. And so you’re going out, you’re knocking on doors, and then at a certain point, you maybe gain enough credit that you’re moving to this next layer. And with these different layers, there’s often like, you’ll learn more and more information about, like maybe the secret knowledge that this particular group has, if they’re a religious group, or in the case of, I guess Queen’s is, I don’t know, maybe you, you’ll learn more of the chants by heart or that sort of thing. So you get like, you get more knowledge that way. And so there’s this sort of buy-in that happens. And with that, comes this belonging that Rachel was talking about. So I thought I’d just bring that up and say, like, yeah, like there’s more to these cults then, than just the charismatic leader. There’s a lot, there’s a lot going on.
Yeah. And particularly when you’re in these cults, particularly the bad ones, once you kind of bought in, the line between like victim and perpetrator of the abuse that happens in these cults kind of tends to get blurred. Like, maybe once you’re one of the lower tiers, like, you’re still more of like a victim. But once you start like indoctrinating other people, once you start, like carrying out the rituals that are involved in these movements, like then you sort of become like, you’re not just like a victim or like a receiver of the ideas of the cult, then you also become a perpetrator. And I think that’s one of the more interesting aspects of like, cults and new religious movements to me.
I think it’s especially fascinating when you’re looking at how they prosecute cults that end up kind of going through the legal system because of the harms that they’re doing on other people. It is very muddled when it gets down to… so obviously, there’s the top charismatic leader, that it seems to be a trait in all of these, you know, like you were saying, when you look at like NXIVM or Jonestown, whatever, there is that kind of like head honcho, charismatic leader at the very top, but then there’s the other ones kind of that trickle down. And then it’s a balance of: can you prosecute those people? Because are they being pulled in by the top charismatic leader? Or are they perpetuating the cult enough, and like the negative parts of that enough that you can actually prosecute them as well?
Yeah, and it’s not like a hard and fast line. Like there’s so much intricate psychology that’s involved in cults that like I definitely don’t feel qualified to talk about. But it’s just, it’s such a complicated subject.
I’ll just add, and a lot of times, finances get involved. So maybe some people have given all of their, their finances to this, to this group, and then they don’t see a way out. So that’s another thing too, is that there’s this thing called cognitive dissonance. So maybe, maybe these people are starting to feel uncomfortable in that they’ve given up all their money and they feel distressed about that. And they’re looking at, “Oh, like, do I convince these people below me in the hierarchy to also give up their money?” And they, they feel conflicted about that. But then at the same time, they also know that, “Well, I’ve given my money, so clearly, I value this group enough. And so clearly, it’s important to me, and so I should stay in it. And so I should continue to grow this community and encourage these other people to give their money or do these other things, because it is so important to me.” And so that’s how very often people end up staying in is because they kind of convinced themselves that there’s no way out, and that it’s important to them.
Alright, so I think we’ve talked a lot about kind of, especially from the negative perspective of this. But it’s not necessarily always first off associated with cults, but second, associated with bad charismatic leadership. So I think there’s… it’s definitely a little bit more convoluted when you… so we kind of brought up here, the Gaels or personal like, relationships that we have that these people have very charismatic qualities. But I think it becomes that much more magnified when you talk about people that actually have a significant power over their, quote-unquote, followers. And I think, again, it’s not necessarily good or bad. Like, for example, we can talk about like, Is Jesus, a charismatic leader, right? I don’t think I know anybody that thinks that Jesus at his core is bad. Do you guys? I don’t know. I feel like everybody’s pretty chill with Jesus, even if they’re not chill with God but…
The Roman Empire might have had a thing or two against him.
Yeah, I’m talking about today. [laughs]
I mean, I’m not a Christian, but I think Jesus was pretty chill.
Yeah, right? Yeah. But he, was he a charismatic leader? Because I guess the traits are there in the sense that he had a following, he was able to convince people of his opinions and perspectives, I guess, to put it, you know, he was using those charismatic qualities to kind of get people to like, be on board with like, his ideologies, right?
Yeah. I think what a lot of Christian people might say is that this charisma, this like feeling of inspiration to follow Jesus, because in a lot of these stories, it’s recorded that, you know, Jesus literally just said, “Come and follow me” and people just like dropped everything and followed him.
Hell yeah, Jesus! I’m on my way.
[sings] “I’m on the way from misery to happiness…” [all laugh]
Anyway, sorry, continue.
I’ve always got a song. I’ve always got a song for any moment.
I think that a lot of Christians would attribute this to being the Holy Spirit inspiring, like this, like being this charisma, and this attraction and so
Yeah, I don’t think it would be necessarily a bad thing to, to link it to charisma would just be it’d probably be explained in a different way.
So in that way, like the charisma isn’t like earthly it’s, you know, godly and spiritual.
Interesting. I have a question. Do you guys think that Jesus can still be considered a charismatic leader now, even though he’s been dead for like, two thousand years?
I think so. Because… Okay, so we were talking about the kind of levels of these sort of religious movements. You know, we more specifically talked about it from like the cult perspective, but it exists in every single religious movement. There are the kind of deity figures, which are, I think, kind of considered like the leader of the religion, more or less, right? But then there’s also like the prophets, there’s someone like Jesus, depending on if you’re from a Christian perspective, that kind of links in with the deity figure, if you’re not from a Christian perspective, you can also say he’s more of a prophet. But that’s kind of a different level. Then you’ve got, like in the Christian church, just use this example, you’ve got like priests or ministers. And then you know, you can go off into different denominations from there, and every different denomination has their own structure, right? So it’s almost like the way that Christianity is set up, exists beyond the original charismatic leader. And I mean, you could even bring this into to like, push it more towards like the cult, quote, unquote, cult ideology. I’m not making any firm stances on if Scientology is a cult or not, because I’m scared of them. But the leader, Hubbard, but he died years ago, but Scientology is still existing beyond him because, like, you know, similarly, Jesus, or Muhammad, etc, has set up a network of people of charismatic leaders to continue spreading their messaging and their ideology and philosophy. And again, this is kind of going back to that argument, like, are charismatic leaders always bad? Or are they good? You know, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Because, again, like I said, I don’t necessarily see Jesus as being bad. But he has created this like, massive network of people to kind of spread his message.
Well, Paul did, not Jesus
Yeah, but like, regardless of like, but the whole point is like, regardless of like the intent behind it, Jesus has created this network, right, like he had his disciples. So technically, like, you could still say, he was like, kind of the start of like that network, even though Paul was the one that kind of hit the ground running with it, you know?
Yeah. Now, that’s a good question about like, what happens when the leader dies? Right? Like…
maybe that like, original charisma is like, I don’t know, the charisma is gone from the leader. But like, obviously, their teachings are still available, but can like some, can, like teachings and readings be charismatic? Or is that like we were saying earlier, like, an instinctual attraction? Do you have to like be in a room with a person to be drawn to them?
Well, I think that has to do with the whole idea of once again, like divine inspiration, particularly, like with these holy texts, there’s often stories about, you know, people have grown up atheist, and then they encounter the Bible, and they open to it, open it to this particular page, and it just, like, speaks to them. So I think I think I think it can still have that like charismatic feeling to it as a text. But yeah, that’s very, because like Christians would say that that’s the Word of God. Right? So then, like God, in a way is embodied in this book, but I’m not really sure about other texts where it’s not seen as the divine being in the text, like, would it would it still have this sort of, I don’t know, inspirational feeling associated with it? I’m not sure.
Well, then the question is, is can we really deduce that because Christianity has such a wide reach that the teachings of, you know, it doesn’t just exist on its own within a book, right? I doubt that there’s been many people that have just picked up the Bible without any knowledge of Christianity, period, and started reading it, you know what I mean? So I think it’s hard to try to, like make a conclusive statement on like, if it exists within the book versus if it exists beyond that, because it has, it already exists beyond that.
That’s a good point. Because in a lot of these stories, it’s portrayed as if they have never encountered these ideas before. But you’re right, like they most likely have and it’s mostly likely not a new thing to them. So they’re probably like going through something in their life that like leads to this like, like being more sensitive to these sort of, like these sorts of ideas or something like that
Or even like they were given this book by somebody that they trust.
Which is its own kind of like link to that charisma. Right?
Yeah. Or they find it in a drawer in a hotel room.
With no prior knowledge of Christianity, period. Never heard of it. [laughs]
Never heard of it!
“What is it doing here?”
“I thought that’s just what my mom yells when she gets real mad.” I’m kidding. My mom would never yell, “Jesus.” She’s, she’s a good Christian woman. And I know she’s probably listening to this. [laughs]
Hi, Steph’s mom!
All right, just so then, if we look at, because then there’s that other layer of it, right.? So like, pushing beyond the leader of the religion, going to that different layer of like, you look at things like megachurches even… And who was Billy Graham, was that his name? The like, massive televangelist?
Yeah. That guy is no doubt a charismatic leader. And so then does that… I don’t know what you guys think about this, but like, does that warp the original messaging then, so so like, if you’re reading and telling the story about Jesus as a charismatic leader, but you’re infusing it with your own charismatic leadership qualities? Are you then influencing your congregation or whatever group you’re influencing to kind of deviate from what the original charismatic messages were?
Yeah, I think absolutely. Like, if you have that sort of power within you, you can totally sort of warp the quote-unquote, original message of what you were going with. And I don’t know, people may not notice or they’ll just be like, “Yeah, this makes sense just because you’re saying it.” And I think I’ve heard like, some pastors of megachurches have, like, come under fire, because some of the, some of the things that they’re teaching are not, it’s not like about love and peace and all that. It’s like, I remember reading…
Sometimes it’s political, a lot… I remember reading one thing, like it’s more like bedroom focused, like…
What does that mean?
Whether, like, not which side of the bed you sleep on, or whatever, but
Or who are you sleep with?
No, the pastors were like more focusing on who you’re sleeping with, what you’re doing, like with contraception, whether you’re getting an abortion or not. Like, it’s a less focus on maybe what you might say, are like, the core concepts of Christianity and more of like, more like, compelling political things that they like, they’re kind of preaching their own agenda, maybe. And they, they have that ability, because they have that charisma.
when I’m sure that’s what ends up happening with… Like, there’s certain churches that are super corrupt this point, right? And they’ll still call themselves like,,, Oh, well, what’s it called? The Westboro Baptist Church? I think that is a prime example of like, yeah, they’re quote, unquote, Christian. But the messaging has been pulled so far away from I think, what you would assume, and like what we say that Jesus said, right, that it’s now warped into something different because there was a different charismatic leader, taking that and maybe shifting it a little bit, right?
I mean, they could also say the same about like other more like, less radical Christian churches, though. Like they could say, “Our view is the true view. This is what like Jesus would preach to us. And these other denominations have been corrupted.”
Yeah, that’s fair. It’s all about perspective, I guess. Or something like that.
Hey, Rachel, you’re an expert, or our expert on Buddhism and I was wondering if you had anything to say about Buddha, maybe and charisma?
Oh, I am not an expert on Buddhism. I feel like if you call me that, and then I say something wrong, I, it’s gonna be awful. But like, I really don’t know enough about the Buddha to say whether he was like a charismatic leader. He was obviously like, people were obviously drawn to him and his teachings enough to like, follow him around, but I really don’t know about…
Maybe our listeners could chime in.
Yeah. If you, are you a better expert on the Buddha than I am, tell us like, what do you know about the Buddha? Like? Would you consider him a charismatic leader?
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Yup. Alright, so then how do we think that’s fair? So at this point, we’ve talked about personal things. We’ve talked about religious things. How do you think this fairs in the political sphere? Because Jacqueline kind of brought up like Hitler’s very well-known charisma and you kind of briefly mentioned Donald Trump in there. But again, I think it’s, we brought up these kind of more, at least in our perspective, negative people. I think everybody thinks Hitler was a negative person, but you know, Donald Trump, there’s still some people who think that he’s not. Anyway, point being, um, you know, for someone like me who I more often lean to the like the political left, I even think of someone like Bernie Sanders as being a current charismatic leader. So again, it’s not necessarily always bad, but it’s interesting how these kind of groups form. And I’m especially fascinated with the fact that I’ve seen primarily White Christian keyboard warriors kind of say that, like, “We’ve lost religion in…” primarily the US, I think you can kind of mirror this into Canada, for sure. But, you know, “We’ve lost religion. And now we look to political leaders to kind of fill that void of our religion.” So I think it’s interesting as well, that now we’ve got these people like Bernie Sanders, or AOC, who are very charismatic leaders and they’re kind of using these tactics that people often used for developing religions and spreading religions, they’re now using to like develop their political following as well.
Like, what are the things they’re using?
I think that like primarily that charismatic leadership quality, right? So there’s almost this messaging that they’re trying to get across, they’re speaking to your primal needs and your desires, and trying to fill that with their messaging. And then beyond that, even someone like Bernie Sanders or AOC, especially, they’re working really hard to kind of get out in front of their constituents and their followers, right? So like, AOC, for example, she’ll go out onto the streets and hand out care packages to homeless people. And that, to me, is a very much a charismatic leadership quality. I don’t know if you guys would disagree with that but
No, I agree. But then, I mean, on the other end of the spectrum, like Donald Trump doesn’t really do that. And people are still, like, huge followers of him. Like it’s, they’re both kind of on, if I can say opposite ends of the political spectrum, but then also in the way that they engage with their charisma and like, try to gain followers, they also have different tactics as well. But they both seem like pretty effective, I guess.
Yeah. I have a question, because… I just thought of this. So it’s not maybe well thought out. But do you think that gaslighting is part of charismatic leadership, especially when it comes to kind of like bad charismatic leadership?
So there have been quite a few, apparently, quite a few headlines talking about how Donald Trump gaslights America. Like NBC says, “Some experts say Trump team’s falsehoods are classic gaslighting.” This says “to gaslight someone isn’t just to lie to them or to manipulate their emotions. It is a deliberate attempt to deceive someone into questioning their own perception of reality.” So it’s a sort of manipulation that makes you second guess yourself in favour of the one who is manipulating you.
I would say that now that you read that definition, I would say that that fits in with charismatic leadership, even in a good charismatic leader.
I think I would agree.
Yeah. Because it’s all about making you understand their worldview, which is no, no, “your worldview is not gonna be the same as mine period. Because we’re different people.”
I’m thinking to about the relationship between gaslighting and charismatic leadership and I’m just realizing that very often, like they both rely heavily on like in-person in-the-moment interactions. So like, you don’t generally feel charisma if you’re not in the same room with the charismatic person. And then with gaslighting very often it also happens in person, where the person just says the thing that belittles your experience and you don’t have the space to speak up for yourself, maybe or like look up other facts. That’s the whole thing with like, especially Trump and fake news is very often, the news just couldn’t keep up with all the claims that he was making that that were not correct fact. And so then it then it becomes very difficult to keep up with that. And so I think, yeah, they both they both very much rely on this like in-person relationship and I wonder if that’s maybe why there’s so much overlap between charismatic leaders and gaslighting.
I feel like we keep coming back to the bad charismatic leader trope. And I’m wondering, do you think that this happens to us a lot, where, when people are good charismatic leaders, you don’t necessarily see it as much. You like, they exist, but you, you tie other words to them. So I’m even just thinking like with Jesus; Jesus has never really referred to as a quote-unquote, charismatic leader, but I’ve seen him referred to as a revolutionary, he’s a prophet, he’s the leader of a movement, etc. But you never see like charismatic attached to them. Whereas when it comes to cult leaders, that’s one of their defining features. Like you read anything that kind of defines a cult. It’s a charismatic leader, period. Why do you think that we associate charismatic leadership with bad people?
I think it comes down to power. I mean, obviously, I think there are other things involved but I think power dynamics is really what makes a difference,. Like whether people can use their, you know, charisma for good or bad, it’s more noticeable when they use it for bad maybe.
I had a high school English teacher that, we were studying the book by George Orwell called Animal Farm. And he would always say, “power taints.” And so just this idea that in that story, the animals kick the humans out of the house, and kind of like, seek justice for themselves. But the leaders of these animals are these pigs. And so very quickly, these, these pigs kind of start seeking power for themselves and actually ended up moving to the big house, keeping everybody else like in the stables, and they also get to sleep in the beds. And then there’s like, it’s, this big story about just how, yeah, even with the best intentions, often power has this tendency to bring about this corruption. And so I was just wondering, do you think that charismatic leaders who seek out or end up in these positions of power, do you think that they, they necessarily, are tainted by this power? Is there a way around this? How can they maintain their integrity?
That’s an interesting question, because I think, especially when you look at politics, for example, when you see people like the Clintons, I think they’re a great example of how their intentions may have been good coming into the political realm, but they’ve clearly had abuses of power since they’ve been in political office. Same with even like Justin Trudeau. I don’t think he’s a bad person. Do I think he’s abused his power in certain ways and done things that have not been the best option for the role that he has? Yes. Hundred percent.
I think also, especially, what do you hear about people who grow up, like as they’re growing up who think or say, quite vocally, “I would make a good leader, I’m going to be, I don’t know, the next president of the United States,” I think we should especially be quite cautious of those sorts of people in that kind of what I’m seeing, or from my own experience, also, is that it’s often the the people who don’t want to be leaders who do not want that power, who actually end up being the better leaders because they’re more focused on helping other people whereas, whereas the people that maybe are charismatic, but are doing it because it makes them feel good to be a leader, that they’ll like for sure be tainted by this power. But yeah, I think, I think personally, that if they start off in a place where they’re not, they’re not power-hungry, that there’s more potential for them to be a positive, charismatic leader. It’s just how do they maintain that? That’s the question.
So do you think Jesus was a good person? Or did power taint him to?
[laughs] Well, a big thing about Jesus? Is that like, there’s a story about him riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Everyone’s like, “Why on earth is he riding in here on a donkey? He’s supposed to be like, cool King who’s gonna save us from Rome? Why he coming in on a stallion?” And so I think he very much chose not to be powerful and so in that way, yeah, I think he is one of the charismatic leaders that I know of that did maintain integrity. But then again, he also did get executed. So that’s, that’s too bad…
[laughs] “That’s to bad…”
Also, though, like the people who wrote about Jesus could have like, specifically had that in mind, like “wW don’t want, we don’t want the idea of power to taint Jesus as we write him.” So like they could have been writing these stories about him with that in mind, and like, maybe, historically, he did ride into Jerusalem on like a stallion. But then whoever wrote the story about him was like, now is the donkey.
Should we kind of talk about we had mentioned this a little bit at the beginning… Well, Jacqueline, you mentioned this more specifically at the beginning that, and you can even see how the conversation has kind of been woven through. Is the charismatic leader a gender thing? Is that maybe that men traditional, traditionally understood as men have the charismatic leadership qualities? Or is that maybe like a societal thing? Or what do you think?
I wonder if we’re just more conditioned to be ready to accept it. And that if those characteristics appear in a woman, we maybe ignore it or don’t take it as seriously, or it’s expressed in a different way, maybe?
Maybe it’s kind of similar to that, you know, like bossy-versus-bitch thing that you hear like, male bosses, when they’re like, authoritative, you know, they’re a boss. And then when it’s a female boss, she’s a bitch.
So maybe you like, yeah, maybe we’re just not conditioned to think of it as charisma in that way. Or maybe men and women are socialized, such that charisma shows up in different ways for different genders.
For sure, I think there’s also a bit of it that, as a whole, people are more comfortable with men in leadership positions, like we were kind of saying, so that when a woman does show leadership, like charismatic leadership qualities, people are more likely to dismiss them. So even as I was mentioning, like, before, I personally see AOC as a very charismatic leader, but the entire conservative, especially conservative men population in the US would argue with me.. They would not say that she is an effective leader, they would not say that she’s charismatic, they would probably diminish it down to the fact that you know, she’s an attractive woman or something right?
Time to close out. What do we think? Are charismatic leaders good or bad? Should charisma be banned from public leadership?
[laughs] I don’t know how to answer that question.
What do you mean, we just spend like an hour and a half talking about this, you should be an expert now.
I think if you’re a good person, then you’ll make a good charismatic leader.
But power taints, right?
Just work at an NGO… that has a flat power structure.
But I mean, not all NGOs are great either.
Well, yeah! Work at the good one!
Well, who’s to say what’s good? See, it’s not a black and white answer. It’s hard. My opinion is that it’s very, it’s probably going to be on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think you can just say like charismatic leaders are bad or good. I think it’s what people do with the tools that they have, that makes them good or bad. And, I mean, like we’ve seen in some cases that can be good for some people, bad for others.
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