Charisma's Concentric Structure

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One of the primary themes of the sociological study of charismatic power is that you need to understand it as a relationship. It's not just about the colourful leader, it's about the interaction between that authority figure and the group that follows them. Indeed, the way you can identify charisma is not by looking at the attributes of the individual in isolation, but by looking at the effect they have on the collective. Charisma is about the encounter - it's not something you can do alone.

However, the group is not itself a simple entity. At the moment of a particular encounter, there may be clear sense of group coherence, generated by the experience of communion by all who are present. (I'm thinking, for example, of a choral rehearsal here.) But for a charismatic leader to have influence that lasts beyond the duration of a single encounter, and that affects more people than they are with in the room at any one time, the notion of 'collective' separates out into a number of concentric layers.


What you find is that the leader collects a core of dedicated followers, an inner circle, who assume a primary responsibility for disseminating the leader's message. You then find a layer of adherents - the faithful, the believers. These may in turn separate out into layers of strong adherents (who go around proselytising to all and sundry) and weak adherents (who go along with things quite happily but don't necessarily seek converts). And then out in the hinterland is everyone else: the benighted, the unenlightened, the lost souls, the damned.

So, to relate this to an example I've written about before: Steve Jobs was the central figure at Apple, with his close associates forming a tight inner circle and the company as a whole the group of 'insiders'. Strong adherents queue up outside the Apple store to buy the next new shiny thing with a picture of an apple on it, and go around telling everyone about the great user experience and the general superiority of the brand over anything else you might find. Weak adherents buy some of the products and like them, but don't feel the need to be part of the marketing campaign. And out in the hinterland are the Windows users.

Or, in a musical context: Graham Vick is the creative brain behind Birmingham Opera Company. He has an inner coterie of a stable production and artistic team, and a team of strong adherents in the professional and community cast members who come back again and again to participate in his productions. These people are also the prime word-of-mouth recruiters for audience members. I have been in that strong adherent group in the past, but moved into the weak adherent pool of fans and audience members through the incompatibility of its schedules with my life these days. But I have to say, I do still experience the urge to proselytise about the company's achievements, even from this outer circle.

So, the exact number and proportion of concentric layers will vary, but this structure can be found through every example I have tested it on so far. The key thing that makes this charismatic, though, is not simply the concentric circles, but the expansionist agenda pushing outwards from the centre.

A stable, non-evangelical organisation may have a concentric structure too. Seen from the side it would look like this:


You've got, say, clergy, regular church-goers, Christmas and Easter attenders, those who only turn up for weddings and funerals, and then those who don't practise the religion at all but still put CofE on the census form out of habit. The differences between these layers are those of distance, from fully involved, through various stages of dilution to those only nominally involved. But there's no great gradient between one and the next.

A charismatic organisation, by contrast, would look like this from the side:


The charismatic leader galvanises the group by focusing everyone outwards. The sense of a cause, a set of principles to be promulgated to the unsaved, gives the direction to this outward push, while the articulation of a crisis provides the impetus. Charismatic groups are inherently critical of the mainstream, and it is the urgency of this need to convert and/or conquer in the name of something that is more important than the individual that allows adherents merge themselves in the euphoric hothouse of communion.

And of course it is this critical edge that creates resistance from the mainstream. If you have ever been told by a street preacher that your friendships are not real compared to whatever flavour of religion they are peddling (funnily enough I never hang around long enough to find this out), you will understand this form of resentment.

But this push-back is central to the emotional rewards for those inside pushing out. Persecution sharpens the boundary between 'us' and 'them'. The bonds of brotherhood only form in the context of a struggle.

This increases the euphoric potential for strong adherents, but makes the position of weak adherent increasingly untenable. Mild approval is almost more threatening to a proselytising agenda than opposition; the half-hearted are likely to be required to commit fully or be cast out as apostates. (Have you ever asked anyone to leave your choir because of their poor attendance?)

Max Weber theorised charisma as an essentially unstable form of authority, originating outside established power structures. And thinking about it in terms of this kind of expansionist urge would tend to confirm his assessment. As Genghis Khan showed, the faster and more dramatic your expansion, the harder it is to sustain indefinitely.

But not all charismatic campaigns implode from a kind of Malthusian catastrophe. Some relax the impetus to expand, deflating the euphoric bubble and reducing the surface tension between inside and outside. They shift from sect to church. The English choral movement was evangelical in character during the 19th century and establishment during the 20th.

Others achieve a kind of steady state where the push outwards is more or less balanced by the external resistance such that movement is contained, yet retains its experience of communion from its expansionist agenda. This equilibrium is dynamic rather than stable - a shift in the balance of forces could produce sudden and dramatic change - but nonetheless is capable of subsisting over considerable periods of time.

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