This article first appeared in Academic Leader on January 2, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

What does it mean to be a leader? Interest in the study of leadership continues to grow, and colleges and universities are taking notice by rolling out new programs. Current degree plans include majors and minors containing the words “leadership studies” and similar. Higher education students can now choose to study leadership within their chosen profession or as a separate discipline altogether. As a result, students are learning that because leadership encompasses many facets, defining actual leadership remains difficult.

When thinking about leadership, many people—students and adults alike—tend to default to what is known as charismatic leadership. Perhaps it is because people find leaders and charismatic actions go hand in hand. They view leaders as those who can rile up a crowd, use their personality to motivate their followers to follow an agenda, or just simply excite people into moving. The immediate problem with this kind of thinking points toward excluding a significant number of leaders and potential leaders simply based on their personality. Those individuals who have studied leadership can attest to personality only being a part of what makes a good leader. While charisma may certainly have an impact on a person’s leadership style, their charisma does not define good or bad leadership. For the students’ sake, now is the time to redefine charismatic leadership as it applies not just to leadership, but also to their own development of leadership skills.

Leadership in Higher education

The missing pieces of charisma

A tension exists among emotions, charisma, and leadership. While some frown on the idea that leaders should let their emotions play a part in making decisions, others think that emotions should influence a leader’s decision making (Cuilla, 2014). Before going into why students and leaders need more than charisma, everyone must first recognize that charisma in and of itself is not inherently bad. When employed in the optimal setting, charisma closely resembles transformational leadership, a popular and highly regarded style of leadership that enjoys a multitude of research on a regular basis.

Charismatic leadership, much like the study of leadership itself, also finds itself without a simple definition. While some theorists place the burden of charisma solely on the leader, other theorists argue that “charisma is simple a state of mind that is highly contagious” (Nisbett & Walmsley, 2016, pg. 5). By this definition, charisma becomes a piece of both the leader and his or her followers, with more emphasis based on the followers. Does this definition point to followers blindly following their leader? Absolutely not, according to recent research on charismatic leadership. A leader, whether charismatic or not, “is not a puppeteer, a strategic manipulator of other people’s feelings. He or she is, first of all, the subject of passions” (Cuilla, 2014, p. 109). If charisma can contribute to so much of a person’s leadership abilities, why do certain researchers place little stock in it? The answer could lie in the results of transformational leadership.

As mentioned before, transformational and charismatic leadership share many traits. As researchers Eisenbieß and Boerner (2013) discovered, one component of transformational leadership includes idealized influence, also known as charisma. Therefore, one could conclude that charisma plays a significant part in transformational leadership. While few would argue that transformational leadership itself is responsible for many positive influences, the fact remains transformational leadership also carries negative implications as well; chief among them is an increase in follower dependency. Under charismatic leadership, a person may choose to stifle his or her own opinion in order to placate the leader’s opinion. Once that action has taken place multiple times, eventually the follower may find himself or herself looking toward the leader to make every decision, rather than finding solutions and answers independently (Eisenbieß & Boerner, 2013). Such thought processes and actions go against what educators, especially higher education educators, want for their students—to become autonomous decision-makers who can ask others for help when needed while knowing how to lead without dependency on others.

Leading with trust

Because charisma cannot be trusted as a main component of leadership, researchers began looking at different components. What they found surprised few people; a significant number of people agree that trust in leadership remains a top priority in many organizations. As Mineo (2014) stated, “Trust is the glue that binds the leader to her/his followers and provides the capacity for organizational and leadership success” (p. 1). Surprisingly, or perhaps not, that truth goes both ways. When defining trust, researchers identified two different types of trust: reliance-based trust and disclosure-based trust. The former deals with trust that the leader is skilled and competent for the work itself. The latter refers to a leader’s willingness to be vulnerable and transparent by disclosing pertinent information needed to complete a task (Phong, Hui & Son, 2018). Mineo (2014) found that leaders who regularly placed their trust in their followers, rather than just asking the followers to blindly trust them, experienced higher rates of trust. When a leader is both competent in the job and is willing to share information with his or her followers, the level of trust rises significantly. Researchers also found another compelling contribution to a leader’s trust factor. When in crisis, followers only placed a high degree of trust in their leader if that leader had been leading ethically on a day-to-day basis. The presence of a crisis neither diminished nor increased their trust in the leader because they were already aware of how capable the leader was. (Hasel, 2013). In contrast, those who “provide a safe haven when life turns stressful and appears threatening to one’s survival” (Hasel, 2013, p. 268) are generally not regarded as leaders, but simply as caregivers. This information provides convincing implications for educational leaders today.

The role of emotions in trust

Historically, researchers found that emotions played little to no part in forming trust in leadership styles. The general consensus in almost all areas of businesses generally disregarded or ignored the role of emotions (Cuilla, 2014). Social emotions, including love, empathy, and compassion, are typically viewed as weakness areas rather than signs of true leadership (Wasylyshyn & Masterpasqua, 2018). However, researchers are recently discovering that emotions indeed contribute to trust in leadership. Self-compassion, for instance, encourages more positive outcomes for all involved (Wasylyshyn & Masterpasqua, 2018). In a 2015 study covering the role of employees’ emotions as it related to trust in their supervisor, the findings indicated that an employees’ emotions while they worked on a project held a direct correlation to the trust they had in their supervisor (Monzani, Ripoll & Peiro, 2015). In other words, if a supervisor helped with the project as much as possible, the employees’ positive emotions fostered higher trust in that supervisor. Other studies continue to support this data. When discussing employee innovation, researchers Zhou, Ma, Cheng & Xia (2014) discovered that leaders who display their own positive emotions influence the positive emotions of their followers. In doing so, they raised the productivity and innovation of their team members. Although the majority of research regarding trust, emotions, and charisma in leadership come from studies that focused on businesses, the application remains the same for educators in higher education. Educators who regularly provide opportunities for students to make their own decisions, make themselves available as emotional coaches, and display ethical behavior on a consistent basis foster an atmosphere of trust.

Bethany G. Edwards holds a master of education in student development and leadership in higher education from Angelo State University. She is working toward her doctorate of education in leadership, with a concentration in higher education, from Hardin-Simmons University. In addition to her studies, Bethany also works for Angelo State University as an adjunct instructor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department.

Phil Christopher completed degrees at Baylor University, Southern Seminary, and Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He has served in various ministry positions and currently serves as senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas. In addition, he serves as adjunct professor at Hardin-Simmons University where he teaches ethical decision-making and ministerial leadership courses.  


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