Charismatic authority is perhaps the most unusual of the bunch — it is relatively rare compared to the others, but it is especially common to religious groups. Indeed, many if not most religions have been founded on the basis of charismatic authority. This sort of authority derives from the possession of “charisma,” a characteristic which sets a person apart from others. This charisma may be regarded as stemming from divine favor, spiritual possession, or any number of sources.
Political examples of charismatic authority include figures like kings, warrior heroes and absolute dictators. Religious examples of charismatic authority include prophets, messiahs and oracles. Whatever the case, the authority figure claims to have special powers or knowledge unavailable to others and which therefore entitles him to obedience from others not similarly blessed.
Key, however, is the fact that the mere assertion that one is distinctive is not enough. All types of authority depend upon the psychological factor of other people perceiving that that authority is legitimate, but this is much stronger when it comes to charismatic authority. People must agree, for example, that a person has been touched by God and that they now have a transcendent duty to follow that person in what he or she commands.
Because charismatic authority is not based upon externalities like traditional or legal authority, the bond between the authority figure and followers is highly emotional in nature. There exists a devotion on the part of the followers which stems from an unwavering trust — often blind and fanatical. This makes the bond very strong when it is working; yet should the emotion fade, the bond breaks down dramatically and the acceptance of the legitimacy of authority can disappear entirely.
When a group is regulated by a system of charismatic authority, it is typical for there to be a single person occupying the pinnacle of power; charismatic authority does not readily share the limelight. Because this figure is often unable to perform all tasks necessary for the regulation of the group, of course others are assigned positions — but these are not careers with salaries. Instead, people are heeding a “call” to the “higher purpose” which the charismatic leader also presumably serves. These assistants share in the charisma of the prophet or leader by virtue of their association with him.
Charismatic authority never appears in a vacuum — in every case, there already exists some form of traditional or legal authority which creates boundaries, norms, and social structures. By its very nature charismatic authority poses a direct challenge to both tradition and law, whether in part or in whole. This is because the legitimacy of the authority cannot derive either from tradition or from law; instead, it derives from a “higher source” which demands that people pay it greater allegiance than they currently show towards other authorities.
Both tradition and law are limited by their very nature — there are constraints on action which charisma does not recognize or accept. Charismatic authority is not stable and need not be consistent. It is characterized more by movement and revolution — it is a means of overturning traditions and laws in favor of an entirely new social and political order. In this, it carries the seeds of its own destruction.
The emotional and psychological investment needed on the part of followers is very high — it can last for a while, but eventually it must peter out. Social groups cannot be based upon continuing revolution alone. Eventually, new stable systems of action must be created. Charisma is the antithesis of routine, but humans are habitual creatures who naturally develop routines.
Eventually, the practices of a charismatic group become routine and routines eventually become traditions. Inevitably the original charismatic leader must die, and any replacements would be but a pale shadow of the original. The practices and teachings of the original leader will, if the group is to survive, become traditions. Thus charismatic authority becomes traditional authority. We can see this movement in Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism.