How can employees shape their managers’ charismatic leadership behaviour?

Posted on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

OTTAWA, November 6, 2012 — Employees can influence their managers’ charismatic leadership behaviour through their acts of followership, explains an article published in the Journal of Psychology by uOttawa professor Laurent M. Lapierre 1 from the Telfer School of Management. The article points to a need to invest more time and energy into educating employees about their roles as followers and the impact their performance in these roles has on their leaders and the organization.

While previous literature has proposed that followers may influence how a leader behaves, this argument has not been carefully explained in relation to charismatic leadership behaviour. The arguments put forth in Professor Lapierre’s paper shed light on how charismatic leadership can emerge in organizational settings.

Charismatic leadership is the kind of leadership that has a profound impact on followers, the organization and, in some cases, society at large. Successful charismatic leaders inspire followers to identify with them and their mission or vision, to feel better about their work, and to perform beyond expectations.

Charismatic leadership can be positive or negative. The positive side of charismatic leadership is referred to as socialized charismatic leadership and is displayed by individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. Socialized charismatic leaders are collectively oriented, egalitarian and non-exploitative. By contrast, personalized charismatic leadership represents the negative side and is characterized by leaders who are self-aggrandizing, non-egalitarian and exploitative. An example of a personalized charismatic leader is Adolf Hitler.

Professor Lapierre explains, “Proactive followership within a manager’s group of employees tends to increase that manager’s socialized charismatic leadership behaviour. Meanwhile, passive followership within the group tends to increase the manager’s personalized charismatic leadership behaviour.” The fundamental logic underlying these predictions is that of “fit.” Specifically, the ideals of socialized charismatic leaders are personified by proactive followers, while those of personalized charismatic leaders are personified by passive followers.

Though people display followership by recognizing and supporting another person as their leader, the way in which they do so varies. Passive followers carefully follow the leader’s instructions and rarely challenge his or her ideas. This type of followership involves substantial deference to the leader. Proactive followers voice ideas and concerns without being asked, and constructively challenge the leader’s decisions if they are not consistent with the group’s mission. Proactive followership is seen as establishing a “partner” role with the leader, but it still requires some degree of deference, without which followership ceases to exist.

The authors emphasize that a manager’s predisposition to display either socialized or personalized charismatic leadership is important. It is unlikely that employees’ acts of followership will enhance a manager’s charismatic leadership behaviour if he or she has a weak predisposition to display such behaviour in the first place. “Proactive followership would drive a manager to display more socialized charismatic leadership when that manager already has a moderate-to-high predisposition toward that type of leadership behaviour. Similarly, passive followership may enhance a manager’s personalized charismatic leadership behaviour if that manager is predisposed toward that type of leadership,” states Professor Lapierre.

Moreover, the article points out that an employee will not necessarily follow his or her manager. Employees are followers (whether passive or proactive) only to the extent that they view their manager as their leader and support him or her in that role. Employees who regularly resist their manager’s requests, rarely see eye-to-eye with their manager or try to sabotage their manager’s efforts to lead the group are clearly not followers.


1 The co-authors of this study are Nicholas L. Bremner, MSc, University of Western Ontario; and Alicia D. McMullan, PhD candidate, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa.

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