Charismatic Leadership: Strategies for effecting social change

Foil, C. M., Harris, D., & House, R. (1999). Charismatic Leadership: Strategies for effecting social change. Leadership Quarterly, 10(3), 449-482.

Foil, Harris, and House (1999) provide empirical evidence in support of House’s theory of charismatic leadership and Lewin’s field theory of social change suggesting that “charismatic leaders are this motivated to alter or break the “frame” or interpretive scheme by which individuals locate, perceive, and label occurrences in their life consistent with the status quo” (p. 453).  Lewin proposes that this is accomplished if “one first decreases the tension between the opposing forces by reducing the strength of both…this tension reduction ‘unfreezes’ the average state of collective norms around which opposing forces have stabilized.  The next step ‘moves’ the collective norms to a new state.  The final step ‘refreezes’ collective norms in a new state” (p. 455).  Additionally, the authors incorporated McClelland’s theory of leader constraint and activity inhibition which states that “high power motivation, in combination with low affiliate motivation and high activity inhibition, predisposes individuals to be effective leaders through satisfying their need for power by making socially desirably contributions to the larger collective rather than by pursuing self interests” (p. 453).

By analyzing 42 speeches from all 20th century U.S. presidents through Ronald Reagan, 14 presidents in total, and coded the three independent variables:  (1) temporal sequence of sentences; (2) inclusive/non-inclusive sentences; and (3) level of abstraction (from least to most).  Historians rated presidents as charismatic or non-charismatic based on their relationships with cabinet members, resulting in four charismatic and ten non-charismatic presidents included in the study.  Using one speech from the first year of presidency, one from the middle years, and one from their final year in office, Foil et al. determined a significant difference in charismatic leaders and non charismatic leaders, over time, most notably during the middle phase – frame moving.  The authors conclude that speeches in the first year loosen individuals’ ties to a collective norm, allowing negation (frequent use of the word “not” was measured), inclusion and abstraction to peak during this second phase, and a reframing of social ideas in the third and final phase.

Future studies following this line of inquiry would be advised to include other words or terms with a negative connotation such as “neither,” “no,” etc. when evaluating negation as a variable. This study does not take in to account follower interactions or perceptions of the leader; a critical component of the charismatic leadership theory.  Additionally, Lewin’s theory suggests the need for strategies of negation in order to accomplish unfreezing, however does not provide suggestions for operationalizing and testing this component of the theory, representing an additional area for future research focus.  Lastly, moving from the political to the business field could lend interesting support for these conclusions, or highlight novel ways in which charismatic leaders engage in social change within large corporations and within communities as social change agents (e.g. an influential CEO who accepts a three year term as chief volunteer officer for a prominent nonprofit).

The theories used within the study were appropriate and clearly articulated the framework for the study.  Specifically, the use of Lewin’s field theory of social change verses the social change model or other related frameworks offers three distinct actions and phases in which a social change agent acts on or within a given environment/context.  Collectively, the authors’ argue that, “a charismatic leader performs the task of translating innovative ideas into socially conventional ideas, that is, translating a value into its contrary… Within such a meaning system, charismatic leadership, by definition, attempts to persuade society to embrace a contrary or a current convention… that is, innovation” (pp. 456-457).  While fitting for the context of this study, I’ve begun to ask whether social change agents are born or made.

Research in the field of leadership studies presented by Jackson and Parry (2011) suggests 70% of leadership effectiveness is “made” or the result of the environment, what parallels, if any can be drawn regarding the development of social change agents (p. 16).  Additionally, if charisma is define as a trait that is inherited or a “special gift” (Northouse, 2011, p. 190), the field may be wise to study the effect of other traits or prominent leaders characteristic (i.e. task/relationship orientation, style approach, servant leadership) that are more broadly influenced by the environment.

As a practitioner, Lewin’s theory and the results of this study provide the most interesting and socially applicable learning.  The application of this theory provides training opportunities and a prescribed process for reframing social issues with a focus on individuals, rather than systems and a shift in values.  Furthermore, this study provides encouragement for leadership educators as they develop curriculum and advance leadership studies in relationship to various fields.


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Jackson, B. & Parry, K. (2011). A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA:  SAGE Publications.

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