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We present an evolutionary perspective on charismatic leadership, arguing that charisma has evolved as a credible signal of a person's ability to solve a coordination challenge requiring urgent collective action from group members. We suggest that a better understanding of charisma's evolutionary and biological origins and functions can provide a broader perspective in which to situate current debates surrounding the utility and validity of charismatic leadership as a construct in the social sciences. We outline several key challenges which have shaped our followership psychology, and argue that the benefits of successful coordination in ancestral environments has led to the evolution of context-dependent psychological mechanisms which are especially attuned to cues and signals of outstanding personal leadership qualities. We elaborate on several implications of this signaling hypothesis of charismatic leadership, including opportunities for deception (dishonest signaling) and for large-scale coordination.
One of the most fascinating aspects about the concept of charisma is that it has managed to retain the aura of mystery – and even the supernatural – which it was intended to convey when the term was first coined over two millennia ago. Historically, charisma was attributed primarily to royalty or religious leaders, who were thought to possess divinely granted gifts, enabling their followers to achieve exceptional or supernatural feats. The power of charisma made it possible for generals to lead armies that could conquer nations, or for priests to inspire believers to construct monumental structures that would take the work of generations to complete. In modern lay terms charisma has become more down-to-earth: typically understood as a personality trait related to charm, magnetism, or likeability (Beyer, 1999). It has become a key part of the vocabulary with which we describe others, perhaps most often applied to the politicians, celebrities, and athletes who act as leaders in our modern society.1 In the realm of politics, for example, elections may be won or lost according to whether a candidate can project the kind of charismatic appeal that convinces voters they are the kind of leader they'd “like to have a beer with.”