Ever wished you could be one of those church leaders who draw large crowds of listeners lost in the rapture of being in the presence of such a wonderful person? In your dreams, maybe? There you are: wavy-haired, strong and steely eyes tinted with just the barest hint of inviting kindness, your makeup impeccably arranged and your finger piercing the air at just the right angle. Men and women blush in your presence, children are named after you, programs succeed almost without your trying very hard, birds drop out of the sky, ships are launched because of your face—you get the picture.

The Real Picture, Part 1: Defining Terms

Even though the not-so-secret wish of many of us is that we could command that kind of attention just because of our personality, the real picture of the so-called charismatic leader is not as clear as your early morning dream sequence. One of the clouding factors is determining the exact meaning or description of “charismatic” or “charismatic leader.”

  • “Charismatic” comes from the Greek word, kharis, which is usually translated as “grace, favor, or gift.” A charismatic leader has charisma, a set of personal attributes that cause that person to be favored.
  • In popular usage, the charismatic leader graces followers with the favor of his/her presence, who then return the favor in the form of emotionally laden attention.
  • In theology, at least from the seventeenth century, the term “charismata” has to do with God’s granting of grace—or favor—to humans.
  • Another theological nuance treats “charism” as a special spiritual ability, such as healing or working miracles, possessed by specially gifted individuals.
  • All definitions carry the sense of the root word kharis, revolving around favor, grace, and gift, in varying amounts and order of importance.

However defined, charismatic leaders are easy to spot, mostly because of the behaviors of those who grant them favor: their audience, their followers, their congregation members. Those behaviors might include emulation, focused attention, or positive response to the leader’s wishes, suggestions, or commands. Another way to spot charismatic leadership: the spread of pleasurable emotions throughout a group of people because of the presence, influence, or activities of the leader.

A Brain Hooked on Pleasure

To understand how a human brain might respond to charisma, we might redefine “favor” in terms of what happens in the brain’s reward/pleasure centers. Favor-given is regarded as pleasurable, as well as favor-received. The gifted/gifting leader provides great pleasure to his/her followers, who return the favor by providing the leader’s brain with great pleasure, magnified manifold times by the number of followers and the various ways in which high emotion is expressed.

Located deep within the human brain, the nucleus accumbens—sparked by dopamine—has been called the brain’s pleasure-and-reward center. Other brain structures (see below) are involved as well. Human brains desire pleasure, especially continuing pleasure, and become easily habituated to any activity that bathes the brain in dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters or chemicals.

Why are pleasure and reward circuits so powerful? Several possible answers emerge:

  1. Dopamine, and dopamine receptors, is among the brain’s most influential neurotransmitters, involved not only in pleasure, but also in brain functions such as learning, memory, and motor control. Parkinson’s disease seems to be related to low levels of dopamine, schizophrenia to high levels.
  2. The nucleus accumbens is integrated with other important brain structures, such as the hypothalamus (the brain’s control center), the basal ganglia (which integrate movement with thought), the cingulate gyrus (which helps us make emotional sense out of ambiguity) and the substantia nigra (where dopamine is synthesized by the brain).
  3. Each of the various parts of the reward-and-pleasure circuitry responds to different addictive substances. The nucleus accumbens is associated with dopamine and the substantia nigra related to endorphin-related addictions. (The substsantia nigra responds to extrinsic chemicals such as heroin, cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, LSD, or marijuana.)
  4. Because there are many ways for the human brain to find pleasure, it becomes quite skilled at seeking and holding onto the sources for pleasure, sometimes even to its own detriment.

A simple way to summarize this matter: charismatic leaders probably offer pleasure to their followers, who become used to that brain state and want it to continue. Charismatic leaders may derive pleasure for themselves because their reward/pleasure centers are highly activated in the presence of adoring others. The rapt attention of others can be addictive for both charismatic leaders and their followers.

The Real Picture, Part 2: Success

The charismatic leader can be successful at her/his work because of the presence of pleasure and reward circuitry in the brain. Pleasured and rewarded congregation members are highly motivated, and their emotional states are connected to others who hold in high esteem the leader whose gifted and giving favor they seek. The interdependence of those who are favored and those who do the favoring seems to be an unbeatable recipe for effective leadership.

Charismatic leaders draw attention to themselves, and probably reciprocate by returning attention to their followers. Honor and affirmation are easily added to attention. Highly regarded people working together are usually effective in accomplishing what they set out to do. Success breeds success, and the process continues.

Next month we’ll continue thinking about the charismatic leader. We’ll look at how this kind of leader uses some of the most basic capacities of the human brain to hold the attention, memory and regard of those who follow them. We’ll also think about how charismatic leadership may eventually run its course.

Bob Sitze is the author ofNot Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations(Alban Institute 2001) andYour Brain Goes to Church: Neurobiology and Congregational Life(Alban Institute 2005). He serves as Director for Hunger Education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


Other articles in this 5-part series

Parsing Platitudes

Synesthetes and the Poets among Us

The Charismatic Leader and the Brain, Part 2 

Brain Science: Coming to a Church near You