Government and Politics

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Willner describes how Ayalollah Khomeini of Iran associated himself with Husein, a Shiile Muslim martyr; and Fidel Castro of Cuba associated himself with Jesus Christ. Unlike traditional rulers, charismatic leaders often become well known by breaking with established institutions and advocating dramatic changes in the social structure. The strong hold that such individuals have over their followers makes it easier to build protest movements which challenge the dominant norms and values of a society.

Thus, charismatic leaders such as Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King all used their power to press for changes in accepted social behavior. But so did Adolf Hitler, whose charismatic appeal turned people toward violent and destructive ends. Since it rests on the appeal of a single individual, charismatic authority is necessarily much shorter lived than either traditional or legal-rational authority.

As a result, charismatic leaders may attempt to solidify their positions of power by seeking other legitimating mechanisms. For example, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 as the leader of a popular revolution. Yet in the decades which followed the seizure of power, Castro stood for election (without opposition) as a means of further legitimating his authority as leader of Cuba.

If such authority is to extend beyond the lifetime of the charismatic leader, it must undergo what Weber called the routinization of charismatic authority—the process by which the leadership qualities originally associated with an individual are incorporated into either a traditional or a legal-rational system. Thus, the charismatic authority of Jesus as leader of the Christian church was transferred to the apostle Peter and subsequently to the various prelates (or popes) of the faith. Similarly, the emotional fervor supporting George Washington was routinized into America’s constitutional system and the norm of a two-term presidency.

Once routinization has taken place, authority eventually evolves into a traditional or legal-rational .

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