Sunday, January 24, 2010

Charismatic Leadership Within Police Departments

Most police supervisors undergo some type of leadership training as a construct for better management of the rank and file. With countless tomes of new leadership models coming on the market from Transformational Leadership to Servant- Leader, are departments developing more effective leaders among its ranks? The biggest problem with many leadership models is their methodologies often do not align with the temperament and personality of the supervisor. Most leadership models attempt to either transform the supervisor’s personality into something it’s not or promote ideas contrary to the practical experiences of the supervisor. As a result, supervisors disregard the information as soon as training is completed. Mean while, manpower and financial resources have been wasted and what was essentially an investment becomes an exercise in futility. A hybrid approach would be better served, melding various leadership styles to fit the core attributes of a supervisor. The changing dynamics within law enforcement requires the same considerations represented by corporate America; a comprehensive business philosophy where efficiency, productivity and effective leadership are essential in this rapidly evolving world. The Charismatic leadership model has become a focal point in recent years within business and political sectors. This leadership style often entails a personality predilection with honed communication skills and great powers of persuasion. Like many leadership models, Charismatic leadership wouldn’t bode well with some supervisors who may favor a more autocratic style of leadership. As paramilitary organizations, police departments have traditionally been entities where strict protocol and conservative paradigms have quashed bombastic or “out of the box” thinking. The new “hot shot” with innovative and transformative ideas for policing is readily dismissed or summarily placated. But, charismatic leadership could be invaluable for: enhancing morale, inspiring greater productivity and providing more services with lesser resources. Whether police departments are prepared for paradigm shifts, there are some attributes charismatic leadership garners that may be beneficial to police management.

Charisma is defined by as:
 A divinely conferred gift or power.
 A spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.
 The special virtue of an office, function, position, etc., that confers or is thought to confer on the person holding it an unusual ability for leadership, worthiness of veneration, or the like.

The secularizing of the term "charisma" is credited to eminent sociologist Max Weber, who moved the term from its religious roots into a more sociological setting. Under Weber’s doctrine, Charismatic Authority (2009), was the focal point among the tripod of leadership models including: Traditional and Legal-Rational. Weber defined charismatic authority as "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him"(para 1).

Weber’s demarcation of these three forms of leadership is important to understanding today’s interplay of charismatic personalities within different social systems in which they garner power. Weber’s "Charismatic Authority"(Weber, 1978) derives its strength and validity on the will, ambition and personality of the leader. This doctrine doesn’t rely on the foundational principles of Weber’s other two leadership models. Under the Traditional model, the leader garners legitimacy based on birthright. The father as head of household or a prince who inherits the throne is an example of Weber’s Traditional model. Weber’s Legal Rational model validates the governmental hierarchy where supervisors advance within the hierarchy. For police management, it’s the governmental infrastructure supported by Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and promotions. While, it may be noted that police supervisors fall under Weber’s Legal-Rational model for their existence, it is the Charismatic Authority model that currently serves as the catalyst, maintenance and longevity of effective leadership.

Charismatic leaders have a talent for uncovering the core problems within an organization and rapidly creating solutions to fill those voids. With their passionate use of metaphors and stories in describing the “Big Picture,” subordinates get swept into the momentum due to the salient issues addressed and direct identity to them. The charismatic leader breeds empowerment and change to personnel who thought change would never develop. It is this whirlwind for change with which adherents attach themselves.

Under the Charismatic leadership model, the psychodynamics of the charismatic personality often leads to progressive advancements within police departments, but also can cause consternation, because of its transformative (organizational) powers. Conger (Bodow, 2002) outlines specific attributes of charismatic personalities that lend themselves to affecting departmental policies and creating innovations. Conger lists charismatic personalities having:

• A restless compulsion to challenge the status quo. The charismatic leader is most at home, and most effective, in chaos.
• A clear vision of which uncharted territory to explore.
• An ability to articulate that vision compellingly to any audience and to imbue it with a sense of great importance.
• An ability to create a sense that no other person could — or would — take the same tactic.
• An ability to inspire and permit those around him to do extraordinary things.

The positive manifestation of these traits is relative to the openness and viability of the individual police department. A supervisor demonstrating these traits could be invaluable as a pacesetter for special unit sections or a panacea for specific locales riddled with crime. The charismatic supervisor who oversees a project of this magnitude would:

• Recruit a cadre of officers who would surpass any expectations to work with the charismatic leader to meet his expectations and shine in the department’s eyes.
• Develop a mission where out-smarting the machinations of perpetrators becomes a religion.
• Inspire a revamped special operations section where officers jockey to be among the chosen few.
• Build alliances between department heads, police officers and the community by exercising political savvy with engaging communications.
• Become an icon for the standards of excellence extolled by the department.

Charismatic supervisors manifest these traits through a high need for distinction, a feeling that creativity and improvisation are necessary beyond basic police training, emotionally and logically inspired oratory honed from developing effective communication skills and extraordinary self- confidence stemming from the need to achieve through constant improvements.

The Charismatic leadership model is also effective when police departments are experiencing high attrition rates among officers, budgetary restrictions (furloughs and cut-backs), increased sick-outs and low morale. In these instances, officers often seek intangible rewards, which reaps recognition and appreciation, which charismatic leadership engenders. Charismatic leadership is supplemental. Consequently, departments can maintain their structure and protocol under the Traditional leadership model and still incorporate charismatic leadership. The Traditional model deals more with the quotidian aspects of police operations, while the Charismatic leadership model deals with special cases and interpersonal challenges that arise requiring advanced knowledge of human nature and the ability to move seemingly recalcitrant impediments.

Drawbacks to the Charismatic leadership model are: Some supervisors become megalomaniacs, exhibit strong dogmatic points of views and can be controversial when they feel their expertise is being refuted. These points speak to the notion that all leadership models carry a certain amount of baggage or “down side.” The same virtues of the Charismatic leadership model also can be vices. It’s one of the only leadership models where most individuals operate or create organizations through sheer force of personality. If the charismatic police supervisor wasn’t in policing, he very well would start his own company, crusade or religion. Weber talked about the “Routinization” of charisma. Under the routinization of charisma, the charismatic personality is infused into the structure or bureaucracy for the perpetuity of the organization superseding the physical presence of the charismatic leader. In other words, the survival of the organization, department or project after the charismatic leader no longer exists. Quite often, the momentum, tenacity and philosophy dissipate after the charismatic leader is no longer active.

According to Grace Fleming (N.D.), instructor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia :

A major problem with charismatic leadership is that group success tends to hinge on the leader. The charismatic leader is the glue that holds a group together. So what happens if the leader should have to step down or transfer? Normally, the group dynamic will fizzle and individual members will lose enthusiasm (Para 3).

The charismatic leader is invaluable in building on preexisting structures, but either need a successor or specific guidelines carried out by dedicated adherents for the work to continue. This is one of the major differences between Charismatic leadership and Transformational leadership. Under the Charismatic leadership model, power is consolidated within the individual. With Transformational leadership, power is dispersed to adherents.

Pundits who lambast the Charismatic leadership model often attempt to have it both ways. They desire the passion and drive of the charismatic leader, but fault him for not being more transformational. Pundits hold the charismatic leader responsible for not empowering subordinates whom are relegated to mindless sycophants. It was eminent philosopher Thomas Carlyle who said individuals seemed “hard-wired” for hero worshipping. Charismatic leaders can inspire, but true motivation, action and responsibility must come from individual efforts.

The new breed of police officers who grew up with iconic images, the influence of the monolithic media and the need for police departments to integrate the “Best Practices,” of corporate America, require Charismatic leadership in its arsenal. In a global economy where resources are limited and every industry and profession have to justify their existence, police departments struggling to attract and maintain competent personnel also have to compete for human capital. The pros of charismatic leadership far outweigh the cons. It takes a certain level of confidence and vision for police chiefs to identify charismatic leaders within their departments and put them to work. It takes even greater courage to entrust charismatic supervisors with the power to achieve phenomenal results.

Invariably, police chiefs have the ultimate power to decide the direction and objectives of their departments. Charismatic supervisors don’t pose a threat, because they are directly accountable for their actions. Unchecked power within any Leadership model is a recipe for destruction. Under certain circumstances and conditions, the Charismatic model is ideal. Police departments best able to adapt to its environment and apply the best solutions to its challenges will thrive in the long run. Merely existing shouldn't be an option.


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Weber, M. 1978. Weber: Selections in translations. Runciman, W. (Ed.). United Kingdom. Cambridge. Press.