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August 15, 2003

Can Charismatic Leadership Lead to a Democratic Society?
Ali Mostashari  [info|posts]

castro.jpgSocial forces for change always exist in one form or another. Actual change comes about only when these social forces interact at a level where they can create sufficient instability to upset the status quo. In order for this to happen, the social forces have to either reach maturity and acquire sufficient strength to destabilize society through gradual development, or be catalyzed by a charismatic leadership. While the former process prepares the society gradually for the change to come, any change led by the charismatic leadership is bound to result in a concentration of power and authority in the position of the charismatic leader, and therefore inhibit a transition towards democracy. In this entry I will argue why I am skeptical that unity behind one person or group could result in a change towards a democratic social structure in Iran.

Weber has viewed the rise of charismatic leaders as a serious threat to social stability. In Weber’s view, when a conflict with the status quo is led by a charismatic leader, the change is often more abrupt and revolutionary. Since this kind of leadership entails a response from followers that goes beyond mere obedience to a doctrine or a political agenda, it can be analyzed in terms of rational and irrational behavior in politics (Weber 1968). What makes people follow charismatic leaders is a source of debate, but it seems that the verbal ability of leaders to emphasize issues that people care about has been a major factor in their appeal. In the case of Ayatollah Khomeini, his ability to use a provincial accent, along with calculated periods of silence in his speech, accentuated by his image of age and holiness (which are cultural triggers of wisdom in Iran) could be cited as important aspects of his charisma.

A charisma-based society is one that results from a social change led by a charismatic leader. The authority of a charismatic leader comes from the unconditional acceptance by his followers. This unconditional nature changes the structure of society and its positions of authority. Charismatic leaders share an intense personal bond with a following that believes in their extraordinary qualities. Because of this they have a powerful say in the shape of the social formations over which they preside. (Bernhard 1998). After the Iranian revolution of 1979 for example, in the resulting charisma-based society people rose to positions of authority not through merit, but through their relationships with Ayatollah Khomeini. Mohsen Rafighdoost, the former head of the Janbazan Foundation, which is one of the most powerful financial conglomerates in Iran, was none other than the driver of the vehicle that took Ayatollah Khomeini from the airport to his temporary residence at the outset of the revolution. Administrative appointments were based on loyalty to the regime and adherence to Islamic values. Universities were purged of secular elements and the criteria for social mobility became the ability to demonstrate loyalty to the ideals of the new regime.

This hierarchy of authority is neither based on traditions nor on rationality. Such an allocation of power prevents any democratic structure from being shaped, since checks and balances necessary for such a structure are undermined by the choices of the charismatic leader and those who have his trust. The criteria for social and political power in such a society therefore inhibits meritocracy. Given that the charismatic leader is not responsive to the people’s feedback on his decisions, the peoples’ votes, even if present, become a symbolic source of legitimacy, while the political structure operates upon the legitimacy of the charismatic leader.

Given the above, it seems that the emergence of charismatic leadership can have very different roles in social change. Generally speaking, it can catalyze social change and increase the probability of its success. On the other hand, given that charisma is more suited towards dealing with change, it can be harmful in the creation of a rational social structure to replace the old structure. Specifically in the case of Iran, charismatic leadership can be very dangerous. Culturally there has been a tendency for people to follow charismatic leaders without questioning. The tendency of bestowing supernatural characteristics and creating personality cults is strong in the Iranian culture. Historically this has emerged through Iran’s hero-centered mythological literature and has later been emphasized through the effect of mysticism. In recent history, the cases of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and Ayatollah Khomeini as leaders with differing types of charisma, and the personality cults created around them, is an interesting social phenomenon.

While currently no such charismatic leadership exists on the horizon, it is doubtful whether such leadership would even be desirable. Instead, the emergence of a variety of alternatives creating rational, strategic and tactical alliances to achieve social change in any form will provide more of an opportunity for a pluralistic society to emerge.

Arash at August 15, 2003 11:58 AM [permalink]:

Excellent article Mr.Mostashari! I wholeheartedly agree with your point about charismatic leaderships and democracy, especially with respect to Iran. However, there are a few points which I would like to add:
1- The only political process (aimed at bringing change) in which the existence of a charismatic figure is thought to be essential is a revolution. It is my strong conviction that this idea plays a key role in explaining the way political movements in Iran, especially during the last 6 years have been unavailing. Those resorting to revolutionary measures (e.g. student movements) do not have any viable options for charismatic leadership and those resorting to charisma (e.g. Khatami-ists) do not have any revolutionary ambitions.
2- Although I agree "meritocracy" is severely undermined in charisma-based social and political structures, I do not think it is peculiar to them. I think appointment to power based on merit can even be hampered in a democracy when some elements of it do not function properly. These elements, I shall hopefully discuss in a separate article but for now let me point out to one element, i.e., people's awareness (or lack of it, rather) which could bring "meritocracy" to a halt in the best of democracies. I leave it to you and others to come up with the proper example.
3- You wrote of "a variety of alternatives creating rational strategic and tactical alliances". You hit the nail on the head when you used the words "variety", "rational" and "alliance". These are exactly why I believe there is not much hope for real change in Iran's political structure (at least not in short term) even if we assume the current non-democratic elements in power are somehow removed. I honestly do not think (constitutional ?) monarchists, leftist extremist militants and a group of Iranian singers, dancers and entertainers on cable TV could even qualify as a variety let alone a rational one capable of forming any kind of alliance.

Saoshyant at August 15, 2003 12:02 PM [permalink]:

Dear Ali Mostashari, a detailed informative presentation, thank you.

A few questions:

Do you think there can be a more context based approach to understand and compare "Charisma" from society to society and with respect to the historicity of the term "charisma"? (you have duly cited Weber, but his approach is a bit outdated for some who believe today's epistemic approach cannot disregard the differences between the cultural equivalents of "charisma" in different societies and the way they function accordingly).

You have duly cited Iran (Mussadegh and Khomeini), but there are other cases of Charismatic leadership that are not very Western and are oriented by non-Protestant, and non-individualist cultures of Western Europe. What would you say about the Charismatic leadership of Lech Valesa in Poland in the early 1980s? Many believe that his leadership, without disregarding all other Cold War dynamics, was so Charismatic and appropriate to that society (Polish) and history that it was a catalyst to the end of the Cold War.

While acknowledging the importance of the international actors and civil society networks in the apartheid movements, many suggest without the bipolar Charismatic leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, South African Movement could not go through the transitional process that it underwent in the 1990s and realize its democratic and federalist goals as it did through the moral and political and courageous leadership of these individuals. Many others cite the culture of "ubuntu" or solidarity as crucial in giving faith to all people as a uniting factor that reinforced the previously mentioned leaders' Charisma towards realizing non-violent democratic goal in South Africa.

How would one compare the Polish and South African examples, with the Iranian example of Khomeini? Can we come up with a formula and/or methodology?

Do you not think that one has to point to marked differences between populist/demagogic Charisma and non-populist and non-demagogic?

I really hope you find the following as relevant as the above:

I have not seen any typology of Charisma in your comment. I think it is important to remind us of the populist versus non-populist types of Charisma. I find a direct relationship between the intentions, organizational skills, and the moral stance of a Charismatic leader that is not populist (Mandela, Tutu or Valesa), and a Charismatic leader who is populist (Khomeini, Adolph Hitler, and Mussolini).

I truly apologize for my lengthy comments.

Uncertainity Principle at August 15, 2003 12:59 PM [permalink]:

Charismatic leadership usually takes control of a country by overthrowing the old regime, exactly like what happened in Iran. In order to establish democracy, charismatic leadership (which is formed around one person) should give place to civil establishments (political parties, parliament, etc). In other words, the life-span of a charismatic leadership is very short, probably until a new interim government forms.

In some systems like the one in Iran, Charismatic leadership lasts longer because the "special situation" (excitement of masses?) continued from the revolution to the foreign invasion and war imposed to the country. Otherwise as you see now, charismatic leadership has died and its left-overs are struggling for survival.

chasbezakhm at August 16, 2003 05:12 AM [permalink]:

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Saeed at August 16, 2003 04:52 PM [permalink]:

What about Mohandas Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King? Their presence was all good for their societies and for the world.

I think one Gandhi like figure can teach tolerance to Iranians and change Iran forever.

Arash at August 17, 2003 05:25 AM [permalink]:

I wish there was such a Gandhi like figure Saeed but even if there was a remote possibility for finding such kind of leader, I believe due to the mythical approach of the Iranian culture to charismatic figures (which was brilliantly pointed out by Ali Mostashari) Iranians would probably make a Khomeini (if not Idi Amin) out of this "Gandhi". Let us not forget that there are always exceptions to every rule, every stereotype and every categorization one makes in social and political sciences. There is always the chance of a "Gandhi" rising up to take the leadership of nation. The question is, does a nation really want to gamble on that chance or not ? Stakes are too high, I believe, especially for a country like Iran.

Ali Mostashari at August 17, 2003 06:24 AM [permalink]:

A few clarifications and responses to the comments:

1) The title of my posting shouldn't have been that general. It would have been more accurate to say "Can Individual-based charismatic leadership lead to democracy in IRAN. In fact I mainly based my argument on the Iranian culture, and did not generalize in this shortweblog article. There are however general mechanisms that apply to all sorts of situations. Hence my next comment on typology.

2) There are different interpretations of possible typologies of charisma, but the one I find most important is the contrast between a individual-centered charisma, versus a movement centered charisma. In the case of Lech Walesa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela the charismatic leader is part of a strong movement for which he is the symbol only. Solidarity, the Indian Congress party and the African National Congress are movements that are strong within themselves with diverse sets of actors united in a common cause. The diversity itself allows for checks and balances within the movement. The charismatic leader in this case serves as an amplifier of the movement's energy for change and is not the sole determinant of the outcome. An individual-centered charisma however does entail metaphysical and magical qualities being attributed to the leader, ellevating him or her above critique. Individual-centered charismatic leadership can result in dependent and apathetic followers (Manz and Sims 1989), low quality policies coupled with inefficient implementation (Heifetz and Sinder 1987) and mystification of the decision-making process (Edelman 1988).

3) Historically, especially after the Mongol attack, Iranians have mostly rejected collective responsibility for change. They have instead relied on creating saviors of mythical proportions who would absolve them of their misery. This approach conentrates the hopes of a nation behind one person. Such a disproportionate allocation of authority cannot result in a democractic structure.

4) So here is a general summary for the argument to get the next rounds of discussion going: Individual-based charisma, where the followers bestow disproportionate amounts of authority on one person tend to result in non-democratic structures if the change is successful. Movement-based charisma, where the leader is a symbol only of a strong movement tends to be more balanced and their mandate more limited in time and scope, allowing for different forces to emerge in the post-change period.

I enjoyed all of the comments and would like to congratulate Arash, Saoshyant, Uncertainty principle and Saaed on their clearly expressed comments :) I enjoy being part of this community.

Pinocchio at August 17, 2003 07:07 AM [permalink]:

However I agree with this point which a charismatic leader can be potentially a dictator. I believe in some condition we can benefit from them without giving them the opportunity to become a dictatore. We can rich this if we have more than one such a leader with almost equal power though no one can eliminate others. Then, we will have competion and Adam smith invisible hands will help people.

Adam S. at August 17, 2003 01:12 PM [permalink]:

hahah. thanks pinocchio... i had long abondoned that belief myself!

Saeed at August 17, 2003 03:34 PM [permalink]:

Ali, how do you see Dr. Shariati?
I think even in current Iran's atmosphere a charismatic "figure" or "thinker" or ... -not a charismatic "leader" - can make a big difference. Maybe the stakes are low in those situations.

I acknowledge Arash point though, that we as Iranians would probably make a dictator out of Gandhi!

Grand Vizier at August 17, 2003 04:11 PM [permalink]:

About Shariati I had a few things to say. After the 28-Mordad coup in Iran which reinforced Shah's regime, people like Shariati were given lots of space to define and present themselves while the alternative non-religious intellectuals were censored. That being said, I have a feeling that without Shariati as a "charismatic doctrinaire" Iran would be better off today.

emaam khomeini at August 17, 2003 05:03 PM [permalink]:

maa har che mikeshim az shariati mikeshim.

yahya at August 19, 2003 10:50 AM [permalink]:

Castro or Khomeini were not advocates of democracy. We simply can not expect from them to lead people to democracy. The main goal for one was Marxism, and for the other was Islam. There are other examples as well. It would be more fair to discuss whether a charismatic leader who advocates democracy can take lead to a democratic society without himself becoming a dictator in the process.