Welcome back to the second segment of a column devoted to the question, “What is happening when a charismatic person operates as a leader in a congregation?” Last month we thought about the interdependence of leaders and followers in a mutually supportive cycle of pleasure and reward. This month we’ll look at other ways to understand how “charisma” works in brains as a style of leadership.

Faces That Launch Thousands of Ships

Helen of Troy may have been beautiful in every way, but the standard description of her power—unfortunately the power to start a war—centers on her face! Neuroscientists now understand that power as a combined effect of the brain’s capability for facial recognition and mimicry. Both may play some effect in the power of charismatic leaders among their followers.

I Remember Seeing You Somewhere

Facial recognition, a primary function of the amygdala, is essential to your survival (“Who is friend and who is foe?”) and to your maintaining social relationships, particularly your social status. Within moments after your birth, you were capable of behaviors that focused on the faces of those around you. (In brain science, these basic lifelong capabilities are called “hard-wired.”) Recent discoveries seem to indicate that there may be specific neurons (brain cells) devoted to the recognition of specific faces.

Because facial recognition seems to be a general characteristic of humankind, you are able to communicate with nonverbal cues, giving and receiving information and emotions with even very slight changes in the various components of your face. (A recent example: in the movie Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, viewers easily discern the nonverbal messages imparted by Gromit, the beloved and skilled right-hand dog of his owner, Wallace.) You read faces to find meaning and you use your many facial projections to transmit meaning.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

This age-old, and sometimes derogatory, description of so-called copycat behaviors actually describes mimicry, a hard-wired human capability. Another set of skills available almost from the moment of your birth, mimicry depends on the firing of “mirror neurons,” located in the premotor cortex and other parts of your brain. These brain cells “fire,” or activate, both when you observe someone else’s action and when you repeat that action. Because of your brain’s efficient, flexible use of its circuitry—called “brain plasticity”—these two related functions of the brain (see/do) are carried out by the same cells. In this regard, all of us are “monkeys.” (Not convinced? Try to suppress a yawn when someone around you yawns.)

Mimicry was a foundation of your first ways of learning. Mimicry is at the heart of fads and “peer pressure.” It continues as a dependable source for initiating new actions and serves as one of the most trusted guiding capabilities by which you wend your way through life’s various mazes.

A Sidebar: The Social Brain

Your innate skill in reading faces, primarily eyes, is part of what some neurobiologists call “the social brain,” a set of important interrelated structures that seek and maintain positive social interactions. Emotions, insight, actions, and even “social intelligence” combine to provide you with critical capabilities that keep you well situated within groups, free from danger and rewarded by your participation in those groups.

What’s This Have to Do With Charismatic Leaders?

Charismatic leaders are most likely highly skilled both in reading faces and in projecting their faces into the minds of others. (In some public settings such as worship services, rallies, or revivals, sometimes those attributes are enhanced by technologies such as close-up facial images shown on large screens.)

Because charismatic leaders are probably good at reading and projecting ideals, and because their followers are drawn to what gives them pleasure—being known by and knowing others with high social intelligence—those followers are drawn to mimic the attributes and actions of their leaders. They are rewarded for that behavior (see last month’s column) and so continue to repeat it, eventually making Follow-the-Charismatic-Leader an easy and habituated game to play.

The brains of charismatic leaders may be especially adept at reads or evoking high emotion, a sure attention getter and holder, and so are well assured of success:

  1. Both leaders and followers pay close attention to each other.
  2. High emotions focus high energy toward action.
  3. Followers of charismatic leaders are rewarded for mimicking the behaviors, personality, attitudes, and beliefs of the charismatic leader. (They are also more likely to respond to the vaunted “power of suggestion.”)

One way to summarize the matter is “personal magnetism,” an almost literal description of how emotions, will, consciousness, and identity can be drawn toward a single source, the charismatic leader.

The Real Picture, Part 3: Flying Too Close to the Sun

In Greek mythology, Icarus flies too close to the sun, forgetting one important detail: the heat of the sun melts the wax on his artificial wings. Most charismatic leaders have to deal with a similar phenomenon—burnout, either their own or that of their followers. This can occur because of these brain-related realities:

  1. There may be a limit on the number of relationships any one brain can maintain; some brain researchers have suggested 150.
  2. To be maintained over time, high emotions—both good and bad—require high energy. The supply of glucose, the brain’s “energy food,” and neurotransmitters cannot be maintained at high levels indefinitely. Eventually leaders’ and followers’ brains and bodies get tired.
  3. As a method for learning and living, mimicry (“do as I say and do as I do”) is easily supplanted by more whole-brain methods. For example, when the charismatic leader is not physically present, followers may resort to other, perhaps more beneficial, modes of decision making such as logical/sequential thinking.
  4. Should a charismatic leader falter or disappoint—and thus disrupt the brain mechanisms of facial recognition, reward/pleasure, and mimicry—followers may attach their emotions to another leader.
  5. It may be difficult for a charismatic leader to deliver on the promise implied by mimicry and reward/pleasure: “If you think, feel, and act as I do, you will become a charismatic leader like me.” (Another way of saying this: eventually followers may come to see that their faces do not, in fact, look like the face of their charismatic leader!)

Heading Toward the Bottom of the Screen You may already have the necessary gifts and social intelligence to be a charismatic leader. As a matter of fact, if anyone pays attention to you for reasons you don’t clearly understand, you may already be a charismatic leader, at least for that person!

As with any gift from God, use it wisely, understanding that your charisma can be a useful asset in accomplishing God’s will for the world. Use the gifts carefully too so that you do not harm yourself or those you lead.

In any case, give thanks to God for the capabilities of your brain, either to lead or to follow others in concerted action that gets God’s work done, in your congregation and in the daily ministries of its members.

God keep you joyful!

Bob Sitze is the author ofNot Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations (Alban Institute 2001) and< /em>Your 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 1

Brain Science: Coming to a Church near You