Leadership is about communication. A leader uses words and gestures that influence a group of people to accomplish a shared goal. But when a leader speaks, why do people listen? Why do they vest that leader with the power to lead them?
Our current and former presidents, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, provide different illustrations of the varied reasons why people may choose to follow a leader.
Researchers have identified six possible reasons why people may give someone the power to lead them. The first two reasons are simple. You may follow a leader who has the power to reward or coerce you. Thus, children obey their parents and employees their boss.
A third reason is called “legitimate power.” This simply means that you follow a leader who has been legitimately appointed or elected. Thus, students heed their teachers and voters their elected officials.
Nevertheless, effective leadership is more than just a transaction, more than just “If you do something I want, then I’ll do something you want.” Leading a family or business is more than doling out rewards and punishments. Leading a classroom, or a city, state or nation, is more than claiming the privileges of office—which brings us to Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Beyond the power to reward or coerce or the legitimacy that comes with an office, researchers have identified three other reasons why people might follow a leader. The first of these is called “expert power.” People may follow a leader who has the expertise to help them accomplish the group’s goals. For example, a religious congregation may follow a minister, rabbi or imam who has the expertise and training needed to explain the scriptures.
Another possible reason is called “referent power.” People may follow a leader whose character, achievements, or personal story is a role model, or “referent,” for the group’s shared aspirations. Thus, Joe Biden attempts to lead through referent power. His 2020 campaign highlighted his personal story of overcoming multiple personal tragedies. And since taking office, his leadership strategy is to project character traits that in his estimation America needs.
A last possible basis for leadership is charisma. People may follow a charismatic leader whom the group perceives as specially gifted and who offers them a saving vision in a time of crisis. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini used charismatic leadership to destructive ends. But Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill rallied their people to overcome national crises.
Charismatic leadership, then, can be a double-edged sword. A charismatic leader can inspire followers to accomplish visionary goals. But the record of charismatic leaders, from politics and business to religion and the media, also makes two problems clear. First, charisma fosters a personal style of leadership associated with a lack of accountability. Second, charismatic leaders must constantly pull off new and greater achievements to continually revalidate their claim to special gifts.
Viewing Donald Trump as a charismatic leader provides, aside from any opinions of his policies, a helpful perspective for interpreting his presidency and ongoing political influence. He is seen by his supporters as specially gifted. He offers supporters a vision to save them from the crises they perceive. As his Cabinet appointees and White House staff gradually departed, his leadership style became more personal and less accountable. And from “Build the Wall” to “Stop the Steal,” he sought to continually revalidate his charisma.
Charismatic leaders who have occupied the White House in living memory rallied the country to overcome commonly shared problems of economic crisis and external foes. Franklin Roosevelt led Americans through the Great Depression and World War II. Ronald Reagan led the nation through high inflation and the Cold War. Where Donald Trump breaks the mold is in validating his charisma by fostering a sense of crisis that has pitted Americans not against shared problems, but against each other.