Let's face it -- it's fun to follow a leader. A leader who can get you all excited about a vision and the means to achieve it. It's a common human instinct. But while leaders can be effective without being charismatic, possessing charisma -- that winning combo of charm, passion and persuasiveness -- can be a huge asset. It's awfully hard to resist a charismatic person [source: Alain]. Take Cesar Chavez. The labor and civil rights activist was a thoughtful speaker, but it was his passion when speaking, plus an ability to relate to ordinary people -- his charisma -- that made so many flock to his cause [source: The Daily Beast].
Of course, charisma isn't always a positive thing. Some charismatic leaders can get people to do some pretty awful things. Remember how Jim Jones got 900 members of his People's Temple to commit mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana [source: Gritz]? Here are some of the most charismatic leaders in history -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
Despite standing just 5 feet, 2 inches (1.57 meters) tall, and being mocked as a child in Corsica because he didn't speak proper French, Napoleon Bonaparte was a phenomenal leader. As a young officer in the French army, he was smart, aggressive and fearless, and inspired great loyalty in just about anyone he met. Because of these traits, Bonaparte's soldiers won numerous battles for France, and by the age of 34 he was emperor of the country in 1804 [source: Jean-Paul].
Bonaparte was successful because he instinctively knew a lot about human behavior -- like the fact that you needed to show appreciation to those who helped you succeed. Once, after his army obtained a key victory, Bonaparte demanded gold and silver from those they conquered -- then he passed it out to his soldiers as thanks. He also realized it was important to win the trust of those you weren't leading. So when his army invaded another country, he made it clear to the citizens that he wasn't against them, but rather against their leaders, who were tyrants. This often turned the people into his supporters, bolstering his efforts. Bonaparte often joined his soldiers in battle, too, and would do any job, even ones normally reserved for the lowest-ranking soldiers. This inspired tremendous loyalty [source: Jean-Paul].
Unfortunately, over time his success went to his head. Bonaparte tried to conquer too many countries, and his army began to suffer defeats. Then, he lost his confidence and began to make errors, such as silencing his critics and sending out spies, as he trusted fewer and fewer people and became increasingly paranoid. Eventually, Napoleon was defeated, and spent the last five years of his life shut away on the tiny island of St. Helena [sources: Finnemore, Jean-Paul].
Fidel Castro ruled Cuba with an iron fist from the time he was swept into power during the 1959 Cuban Revolution until 2008, when he resigned as president due to ill health.
Although he is reviled by many of his countrymen for bringing communism to Cuba, he retained favor with most of Cuba's poor for his social reforms and his magnetic personality [sources: Bream, McKinley, Jr.].
When Castro came into power, Cuba was a young country, having obtained independence from its Spanish colonizers in 1898 [source: Bream]. Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencia Batista with military force to win leadership of the island, promising to hold elections and restore the Cuban constitution. Citizens enthusiastically supported him. But Castro reneged on those promises and brought strict communism to Cuba, allying the country with the Soviet Union and becoming bitter enemies with the U.S. Although the Soviet Union supported Cuba during its existence, the Cuban economy has always been dismal. There's little industry in the nation, and today, with the Soviet Union no longer in existence, Cuba runs mainly on the money coming in from tourism and remittances from exiles [sources: Bream, McKinley, Jr.].
Amazingly, no matter what happened over the years, Castro's support remained strong at home. Cubans were proud that he didn't kowtow to the powerful United States or submit to the allure of its popular culture, as so many countries did. Quite the contrary: Castro blamed the U.S. for most, if not all, of Cuba's economic woes. To his credit, Castro established free health care, reduced racism and provided free education for all through college. Now Castro's younger brother, Raúl, is in charge. It remains to be seen if Cubans will be satisfied with their dreary economy with a less-charismatic person leading them [source: McKinley, Jr.].
Bombastic, energetic and decisive, Sir Winston Churchill loomed larger than life. The son of a British man and an American woman, Churchill was an average student. But he had a gift for inspiring people to follow him, and he never backed down when he thought he was right. He entered politics as a young man, and rose through the ranks to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, the highest governmental post in Britain after prime minister [source: Lewis].
Britain was largely pacifist in the 1920s and '30s while Churchill was more hawkish, feeling a war was looming with the rise of Germany's Nazi Party. This caused him to frequently butt heads with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and others. But in 1940 -- with Britain now enmeshed in World War II -- Churchill became prime minister. And that's when people really began to rally behind him. During the war, Churchill delivered numerous inspirational and uplifting speeches to the Allied Forces around the world and to British citizens. One of his more notable lines was uttered on June 18, 1940, when France was in the process of surrendering to Hitler, leaving Britain to face Germany alone: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'"[source: Lewis].
To ensure people linked Churchill the man with his words, he made himself easily identifiable in photos and the ubiquitous political cartoons of the day, adopting numerous "trademarks," such as his hat, cane, cigar and bow tie [sources: Lewis, Roberts].
Interestingly, while Churchill was a beloved figure to the public, he was fairly rude and harsh to his staff. His staff members did love him, but it was because of his role as leader -- not because he was a warm, fuzzy guy [source: Roberts]. In 1945, Britain and its allies won World War II. Churchill was defeated in the post-war election but became prime minister again from 1951 to 1955.
Mahatma Gandhi was a scrawny, sickly kid and a mediocre student. He became a lawyer as an adult, but his shyness made him ineffective. He could be rude and tactless. And he wasn't remotely charismatic. Until, that is, he got angry. Really angry.
Gandhi had moved from India to South Africa in 1893 to work as a lawyer and was traveling on a train in South Africa. Although he had a first-class ticket, a white man didn't want him sitting there, so a guard threw him off. Shivering in a dark waiting room, Gandhi had an epiphany. Within a week, he was speaking out publicly on discrimination and mesmerizing crowds with his passion. He shed the English clothing he'd favored, and began wearing the simple tunic-like garb of Indian farmers. Soon, his modus operandi of nonviolent protest through civil disobedience was born, which he used to work toward human rights and political equality. The more prominence and success he achieved, the more he was viewed as charismatic [sources: Denning, Daniel].
After helping to change some of the discriminatory laws in South Africa, Gandhi moved back to India in 1915. Soon, he was mobilizing the people to peacefully revolt against their British colonizers. Specifically, Gandhi instructed Indians to boycott everything British: British-made clothing, British universities and even British laws. One such law stipulated Indians couldn't produce salt, but instead had to buy it from licensed factories -- all of which were owned by the British. So in 1930, Gandhi staged a 24-day march to the sea, later known as the Great Salt March. Hundreds of thousands of his countrymen joined the march; when they reached the sea, they used it to make their own salt [sources: Denning, Daniel].
Gandhi's tactics worked. India gained its independence in 1947, and the new country of Pakistan was also created out of the northeastern and northwestern areas, which were predominantly Muslim. Unfortunately, Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist who despised him for his tolerance of Muslims [source: History Learning Site].
Adolf Hitler wasn't a sociable person. He was a quirky kid who left school at 16 to become a painter in Vienna, at which he failed miserably. He had problems forming intimate relationships and couldn't engage in an intellectual debate. Plus, he had loads of prejudices. Yet after joining the fascist German Workers' Party (later the Nazi Party) in 1919, it only took him two years to become its leader [source: Rees].
It was the perfect storm. The Germans had gotten thrashed in World War I and were poor, starving and humiliated by the terms of their surrender. Hitler swept in promising redemption and salvation in an almost religious manner. He railed against democracy, told the Germans they were Aryans and better than everyone else and spoke out against carefully defined enemies, namely communists and Jews. He had a clear vision, and was determined to convince the universe of his mission -- hallmarks of a charismatic leader. Millions of Germans, predisposed to hear such a message, fell for it, viewing Hitler almost like a god. His staff bought in, too; Hitler, surprisingly, was a kind boss. Soon, the majority of people were following him without question [source: Rees].
Part of Hitler's charisma was his true and utter belief that Germans were great, and that he was "the one" to lead them to take over Europe. It might have seemed that way after he easily conquered several countries in Western Europe but it blinded him to the risks of overreaching. He had the German army invade Russia during World War II, while they were still fighting the British and occupying other countries. He also had the Jewish populations of all the countries he invaded (as well as Germany) rounded up and killed or sent to concentration camps. With the U.S., Britain and Russia closing in on Nazi Germany, Hitler's followers began to become disillusioned. After Germany surrendered in 1945, Hitler committed suicide [source: Rees].
Martin Luther King, Jr.
He had a dream, but he never lived to see it come true. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pioneer in the civil rights movement in the U.S. There were many other African-American leaders at the time, but it was King who stood out because of the way in which he motivated the masses and his uncompromising commitment to nonviolent protest [source: Ling].
King was born in Atlanta in 1929. An educated man, he earned numerous degrees, including a doctorate from Boston University. In 1955, he agreed to take a leading role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where blacks in Montgomery, Ala. refused to ride the public buses until they were allowed to sit where they liked instead of just at the back. The success of the boycott (which lasted almost a year) vaulted King to the forefront of the movement.
King was known for his inspirational speeches, which included such memorable oratories as the "I Have a Dream" speech he gave during the March on Washington, D.C. in 1963, spurring folks of all races to band together and push for federal civil rights legislation. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters ever in the U.S. capital (250,000) and the speech is considered one of the greatest in American history [source: Ling]. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, religion or gender.
Of course, King had plenty of detractors, too -- both blacks who disagreed with his nonviolent methods, and also racists who wanted to keep segregation intact. In 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he'd gone to help striking garbage workers [source: Nobel Prize].
Malcolm X had an incredibly turbulent life. But despite the chaos and a lack of education, he became a powerful motivator who drew thousands of blacks to join the Nation of Islam and embrace black pride.
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., Malcolm's father, Earl Little, was a preacher and civil rights activist. Because of his activism, the family was often harassed by white supremacist groups. The Littles moved to East Lansing, Mich., to escape the harassment, but supremacists there murdered Earl in 1931. Malcolm's mother, Louise, never recovered from Earl's death, and was eventually committed to a mental institution [source: Biography].
Malcolm fell into a life of drugs and crime. After landing in jail in 1946, he began to read voraciously. He also converted to the Nation of Islam, a small sect of black Muslims who believed black Americans should establish their own state. Malcolm then dropped the surname "Little," which he considered a slave name, changing it instead to "X" in honor of his unknown African ancestors. Soon, he was preaching the need for a violent revolution to establish an independent black nation. Malcolm X was a passionate person, and turned out to be a naturally gifted orator. When he was released from prison in 1952, there were 400 members in the Nation of Islam. By 1960, largely due to his efforts and charisma, there were 40,000 [source: Biography].
In 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation, disillusioned after learning leader Elijah Muhammad had violated his own teachings by committing adultery. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and converted to traditional Islam. He also became less angry and more inclusive of other races, realizing violence wasn't necessary to achieve his goals. Unfortunately, in 1965, when he was getting ready to deliver a speech in Manhattan, three members of the National of Islam rushed the stage and shot him. He died instantly at age 39 [source: Biography].
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 into a South African royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe. But he was black, and South Africa was ruled by whites, so even his prestigious birth couldn't save him from the brutal system of racial segregation, called apartheid, that was in existence then. Mandela attended college, where he quickly became involved with various protests against racial discrimination. Initially, he favored using boycotts, strikes, and other nonviolent methods to push for full citizenship for all South Africans. But after white police killed 69 peaceful black protestors in 1962 in Sharpeville, Mandela, as head of the activist organization, the African National Congress (ANC), embraced some methods of violent resistance as well [source: History].
After the ANC was banned, Mandela was arrested in 1962 and charged with sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy. During his eight-month trial, he cemented his status as an international icon with his opening statement that concluded with these passionate words: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die" [source: History].
Mandela spent 27 years in jail, most of the time doing hard labor. But he also earned a law degree, smuggled out political statements and drafted his autobiography. And his lengthy imprisonment added to his mystique and his reputation as a freedom fighter. International public pressure led to his release from jail in 1990 and to the dismantling of the apartheid system. Just a few years later, in 1994, he was elected the first black president of South Africa in the country's first multiracial parliamentary elections. In 1999, Mandela retired from politics, but continues to push for peace and social justice throughout the world [source: History].
You may know her better as Evita, thanks to the popular Broadway musical of the same name. But no matter what you call her, Maria Eva Duarte Perón had a major influence on the lives of millions of 20th-century Argentinians. Born in 1919 in the small town of Los Toldos, Eva moved to Buenos Aires as a young woman to become an actress. While not supremely talented, she had a reasonable amount of success. But her life dramatically changed when she married Juan Perón in 1945 [sources: Mi Buenos Aires Querido, Biography].
Perón was a colonel and government official, and the year after they married, he became president of Argentina. Eva was a skilled speaker, and immediately decided to use her position as first lady to advance numerous causes such as women's suffrage and assistance for the poor. She had a special connection with the poor, whom she called "mis descamisados (my shirtless ones)." She also started her own foundation to help them, often personally handing out cash.
Eva was tapped to head the ministries of health and labor. Back then -- in the very patriarchal society of Argentina -- that was unheard of. Eva instantly became both loved and loathed by millions -- loved by those she wanted to help, and loathed by those who thought a woman shouldn't be an activist or who disapproved of her husband's autocratic rule [source: Biography].
In 1951, with her husband again running for president, some were urging a Perón-Perón ticket, with Eva as vice president. The army opposed this, and Eva declined to run. She died of cancer in 1952 at age 33, having achieved an enormous number of things in a very short time. Thousands appealed to the Vatican to canonize her[sources: Evita Peron, Mi Buenos Aires Querido].
Aung San Suu Kyi
For nearly two decades, activist Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned in her Myanmar (formerly Burma) home and became the symbol of liberation for her country. She is the daughter of the founder of the Burmese Independence Army, who originally negotiated the terms of Burmese independence from Britain and was later assassinated.
Suu Kyi lived an ordinary life in England with her British husband and children until she returned to Burma to attend her ailing mother. While there, she was asked to lead the pro-democracy movement. In 1988, she addressed a half million people on behalf of the National League for Democracy party in the hopes of bringing democracy to her home country. The country was ruled by a brutal army junta, though, and not surprisingly, it wasn't in favor of this idea. Although Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory during a 1990 general election, the junta overturned the results, locked up Suu Kyi in her home and stayed in power. The junta offered to release her if she would leave Burma and stay out of politics but she refused, vowing to serve the people of Burma until death, and rarely seeing her family again [source: Nobel Prize].
But slowly, things changed. After intense international pressure, Suu Kyi -- by then, one of the world's most prominent prisoners of conscience -- was released in late 2010. The junta finally ended and real elections were held in 2012, when the National League for Democracy party won nearly every seat it contested [source: CBC News]. In 2015, her party won in a landslide, although she was barred from becoming president because of her sons' foreign citizenship. Lately, Suu Kyi's reputation as a human rights advocate has been tarnished. She has been criticized for doing nothing to stop the Myanmar military's persecution of the Muslim-minority Rohingyas, who were forced to flee in their thousands to Bangladesh. But her supporters maintain that she has little choice since the military retains serious power.
Last editorial update on Feb 20, 2020 10:36:20 am.
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Author's Note: 10 Far-out Charismatic Leaders (and the Trouble They Caused)
As I wrote this piece, I tried to think of the most charismatic leader I've experienced. I was too young to remember John F. Kennedy, and many of the more current inspiring leaders -- Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela -- live in other countries. But in the end, I decided it was Ronald Reagan. Whether you're more red or blue, Reagan had an ability to make you want to band together and help each other out, and he made you proud to be an American.
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