Charismatic Leadership as the Bulwark Against Unit Disintegration

Charismatic Leadership as the Bulwark Against Unit Disintegration

OCS instructor teaching students
February 25, 2022

by MAJ Karl Umbrasas, PsyD, USA
Land Warfare Paper 142, February 2022

In Brief

  • Rational authority undergirds Army leadership, meaning that servicemembers obey leaders’ directives because of the statutory imperative to obey the office of the leader. Obedience to rational authority is motivated by external incentives, such as pay or avoidance of legal problems, rather than internal incentives, such as loyalty to the leader.
  • Challenges during large-scale combat operations may place a strain on the Army’s system of rational authority that has not been experienced during peacetime or during the Global War on Terror. Sophisticated adversary capabilities, battlefield losses, area denial and loss of leader confidence may override the incentives to follow rational authority, resulting in disintegration of unit cohesion.
  • Charismatic leadership does not rely on external incentives; as a result, it can provide a bulwark against unit disintegration if rational authority fails. The Army must consider how it will use charismatic leadership to facilitate mission success on the future battlefield.



Large-scale combat operations (LSCOs) against peer adversaries will challenge the United States Army as a whole. The Army has spent the past two decades involved in stability and counterinsurgency operations, creating operational complacency with high signature, static outposts and unrivaled communication, air mobility and sustainment operations.1 The LSCO battlespace, however, portends a radically different operational landscape. Soldiers will operate dynamically forward, inside the enemy’s antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) system.2 They will be expected to maneuver, disperse and aggregate to ensure survivability rather than returning to a forward operating base (FOB) after missions.3 Distributed forces will have a large front and unsecured flanks and will engage in compartmented battles without naval or air superiority.4 The radically different operational landscape requires innovation and change within the Army to prepare for 21st century combat. This article examines innovations in Army leadership using an interdisciplinary analysis, applying fields of sociology, psychology and military history to examine how charismatic leadership may enhance Army leadership in large-scale combat.

The Army defines leadership as an influence process where the leader provides purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish a mission.5 When considered from a Weberian perspective, Army leadership’s foundation is rational authority.6 Rational authority is based on statutory, or legal, rule.7 Leaders exercising this type of authority are obeyed by virtue of the legal ordinance that grants their powers. Followers of this type of leader are obedient to the impersonal orders, not to the person. Thus, followers of rational authority execute orders promulgated from the office, irrespective of who may hold the office at the time. 

Incentives for Service and Challenges to Military Authority

A range of incentives motivate Soldiers to follow the orders that sustain the Army’s system of rational authority. The external incentives with perhaps the highest motivational value are continued pay and avoidance of legal sanction. If Soldiers were not dependent on continued pay from the Army, their willingness to follow orders might vary as a function of the order. This implicit cost-benefit analysis is seen when Soldiers choose to leave the Army after prognosticating that the state of affairs exceeds their desire to serve, such as when expecting frequent combat deployments. The so-called stop-loss is a necessary mechanism to prevent a mass departure from the military when the organization anticipates that the perceived cost-benefit ratio will become untenable for individual Soldiers. After the most recent stop-loss during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was suspended, the services instituted financial incentive programs to encourage servicemembers to remain in the military.8 The Army’s external incentives are in constant competition with incentives in the civilian sector. In fact, a strong economy is often cited as a reason that services struggle to meet recruiting goals; good civilian sector pay and opportunities siphon talent from the services.9 In addition to seeking good pay, Soldiers want to avoid legal sanctions related to not obeying lawful orders. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) punishes members of the military for failing to obey orders. Article 92 of the UCMJ, “failure to obey an order or regulation,” carries a range of penalties, including, at its maximum, two years in confinement.10 External incentives, therefore, are major sources of motivation for Soldiers to follow the Army’s system of rational authority. 

Despite incentives, rational authority is subject to challenge in military organizations. It has even been challenged in some of the most draconian militaries. By the time of World War II, the Soviet Red Army had a reputation for harsh treatment of dissenters, not to mention those who violated orders. Even so, Soviet officials experienced challenges on the battlefield. Communist political officers, the politruk, were embedded in every unit, and soldiers were expected to obey their instructions.11 The politruk’s ideological platitudes, received with great scorn, were often out of touch with the semiliterate conscripts who formed the bulk of the Soviet army. Those soldiers’ sentiments are clearly evident in some of the language from that time: “If I end up in combat . . . the first person I’ll shoot will be the politruk”; and, “As soon as we get to the front . . . I’ll kill the deputy politruk.”12 Even Soviet general officers, whose career or life could be in jeopardy by the slightest perception of disloyalty to Stalin, had candid criticism for political officers.13 This rejection of Soviet officialdom is illustrative of the Red Army’s tendency toward a breakdown in order, and, at times, its seemingly vacuous authority, which resulted in disastrous large-scale surrenders.14 Challenges to authority were not isolated to the Red Army, however; rational authority also experienced challenges in the Wehrmacht. Field Marshall Erich von Manstein, for example, ordered a retreat of his forces in September 1943 to the so-called Panther position along the Dnieper, despite Hitler’s repeated refusals to approve the retreat.15 

Notable challenges to rational authority have been found in the United States military as well. In 1932, Major General Douglas MacArthur disobeyed orders from President Hoover, choosing to move forward with an attack on the Bonus Army—a group of thousands of World War I veterans who peaceably marched on Washington during the Great Depression to request an early fulfillment of a $1,000 bonus, originally due to them in 1945.16 In another instance, during fighting on Guadalcanal in 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Chesty Puller put together a hasty rescue of Marines despite a more senior commander’s refusal to approve the rescue.17 And then Major General O.P. Smith resisted General Douglas MacArthur’s directive to charge toward the Chinese border during the Korean War.18 The Army went on to experience a range of challenges to rational authority during the Vietnam War as desertions, AWOLs and combat refusals occurred at concerning rates.19 In September 1971, a Military Police (MP) unit had to conduct an assault against American Soldiers who refused to leave their bunker at Cam Ranh Bay. In Dalat, MPs responded to an outpost where fragmentation grenades were allegedly used against a Company Commander.20 During the 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, the team of security contractors—all ex-military—claim they refused a stand-down order and engaged Libyan militia who were sieging the embassy.21

Although the incentives that undergird rational authority in the military are not challenged during peacetime and were not significantly challenged during the recent decades of counterinsurgency, they may experience a challenge during LSCOs. Soldiers cannot expect to have the same assets and capabilities that were available to them during counterinsurgency, causing their experiential threat levels to increase substantially and possibly changing their view of the mission. The potential disorder of the LSCO battlefield may exist in conjunction with leadership challenges—such as loss of leader confidence or leader succession—and enhance the perception of unit disorder. Just as the Benghazi team went its own way when leadership was perceived to be in question, the highly chaotic LSCO battlefield could lead to similar deviations from rational authority. For instance, C4ISR architecture is likely one of the first targets of an enemy attack during battle with a near-peer adversary, cutting forces off from larger units and from lines of communication.22 Sophisticated adversaries would require units to constantly maneuver to avoid lethal strikes on their positions. The sophistication of an adversary’s capability is evident in Russia’s Reconnaissance Strike Complex, which is a method for employing long-range precision-strike fires that are guided by real-time intelligence.23 Soldiers would have to avoid detection by reconnaissance drones feeding positional data to the fire-direction center that would target them with devastating fires, including thermobaric munitions.24 Soldiers on archipelagic terrain might also experience daunting situations, including encirclement by a numerically superior foe with devastating fires. The challenges inherent to LSCO raise the question of whether external incentives, such as pay and avoidance of legal sanction, will maintain obedience to rational authority. 

The French social philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel observed that obedience has its limits.25 Two key challenges to external incentives—and, by extension, rational authority—that may emerge during LSCO are first, that soldiers may estimate that following rational authority is no longer worth the cost, and second, that soldiers no longer fear consequences for not following rational authority. These threats to rational authority are illustrated in the following dilemmas: leader succession and loss of leader confidence. 

Casualty estimates for future LSCOs suggest that the United States could experience unacceptably high combat losses.26 Leaders at the battalion, company and platoon level could very well be part of these losses. This may leave a leadership succession dilemma.27 The nature of fog, friction and chance experienced by the unit could also lead to a loss of confidence in any given leader. Challenges to rational authority suggest the need for greater internal incentives for following leaders during periods of sustained extreme stress. Although the most primordial of internal incentives always exists in combat—self-preservation—other internal incentives must be improved to ensure mission success. 

Group Cohesion

It is especially important that group cohesion, as an important internal incentive, can persist under arduous conditions. The effectiveness of group cohesion was especially apparent near the end of World War II, when the Wehrmacht was broken into unconnected segments and its lines of communication were severed. Despite essentially having lost the war, Wehrmacht units were known to offer more than token resistance against Allied formations.28 The soldiers’ (in German, the Landsers’) primary group, such as their squad or section, was the motivation for continued fighting, because the primary group satisfied a number of human needs, including needs for esteem, affection and a sense of power. The Landsers were not just fighting against someone; they were fighting for someone—each other. The importance of the primary group is generally recognized as a strong motivator for combat.29 A primary group can make extreme situations appear bearable. Sebastian Junger, a journalist embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, remarked that his bond to this primary group made him feel safer in theater than he did when camping in the American northeast.30 

A leader must be part of the primary group to foster cohesion, maintain positive control of the mission and prevent unethical behavior. Yet, the Army’s corporate style of leadership, which emphasizes formality, meetings and policy, may make it difficult for leaders to bond with their units, ultimately interfering with the larger group cohesion so important to primary group motivation.31 The Army’s current corporate style of leadership began after the Vietnam War. By the end of Vietnam, Army leadership was seen as ineffective, dysfunctional and in need of a full system reboot.32 The rebuilding of Army leadership entailed some institutional innovations, but leadership qualities remained central to identifying Army leaders. Renowned Generals, such as George Marshall and Omar Bradley, served as the archetype for general officer material, and, therefore, as a model for Army leadership as a whole.33 These officers were known for their hardworking, responsible and conformist demeanors. They were dependable, managerial leaders who maintained distant and removed relationships from others. This leader prototype persists today. It is so well-known and regarded that Army officers who transfer to the civilian workforce emphasize the corporate leadership skills obtained in the Army, oftentimes over the specific technical skills developed while on active duty.34 This style of leadership relies heavily on external incentives to maintain the rational authority that undergirds the leaders’ commands. In situations where external incentives lose value, these leaders will have difficulty commanding others. Leadership that motivates internal incentives, such as group cohesion or personal loyalty, is needed to prevent unit disintegration during situations in extremis, such as might occur during large-scale combat. 

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership creates a following based on the personal attributes of the leader. A leader’s charisma is a set of attributes that entail exceptional abilities not common to everyone.35 This can include impressions that the leader has superhuman abilities, but also important attributes desired by one’s culture, such as heroism. Some leaders may display these exceptional abilities by a talent for paying close attention to what others desire, and, in so doing, appear to read minds, or their intuition may give the impression that they have a sixth sense. Fidel Castro’s comrades in the Sierra were often awestruck at his ability to avert disastrous ambushes just in the nick of time. Castro’s intuition and ability to read the environment made him appear to have a superhuman gift.36 Although charisma may seem like an exotic quality, incompatible with the down-to-earth rigor of the U.S. Army, it was highly-ranked in a survey in which Army officers rated the leadership qualities they most admired and wished to emulate. Among majors and senior captains, a charismatic command presence was rated highest out of eleven qualities.37 Junior captains rated charismatic command presence a close second, only after warrior ethos.38

Charisma among leaders can result in charismatic authority, which is a leader’s ability to stimulate and maintain in others the belief that the leader is the source of authority.39 With charismatic authority, followers believe statements from the leader merely because they were made by the leader. Blind faith, devotion, obedience and reverence are often accorded to the charismatic leader, even if it means enduring hardship and sacrifice.40 This authority, therefore, cultivates intrinsic motivation in followers while de-emphasizing extrinsic rewards.41

Followers in crises are more receptive to leadership, and, more specifically, to the bold proposals made by charismatic leaders.42 During times of extreme stress, people look for the idealization, heroism and superhuman ability typical of this leadership.43 The charismatic leader provides hope for a group’s immediate crisis while at the same time assuaging the personal fears and meeting the personal needs of group members.44 The followers in these instances are the king makers who, in return for the leader’s psychological sustenance, increasingly elevate the leader’s charismatic stature.45 History is replete with examples of such leaders, whether good or bad, emerging during times of stress. Winston Churchill, for example, assumed high office during a time of existential crisis for Britain, while Fidel Castro gained power within the context of Cuban revolutionary fervor. 

A number of case examples illustrate the effectiveness of charismatic leadership in the U.S. military. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, mentioned above, was an iconic Marine whose leadership and personality lives on in Marine Corps lore. He led from the front, led by example, fostered close bonds and genuine relationships with his Marines and knew how to advocate for them.46 He motivated his Marines by connecting with them; his advice to subordinate leaders was that they must simply explain the reasons that Marines were given a task.47 Puller believed that improving the comprehension for why a task was ordered, and the courtesy that went along with communicating those reasons, would increase productivity. His methods increased unit cohesion, especially when taking over a new unit. When he took over the First Marines, troops stated, “The regiment came alive,” and his presence “gave us pride in some way I cannot describe.”48 Puller’s ability to inspire his Marines was also present in combat, as, for example, when leading Marines to victory during the assault on the island of Peleliu in 1944.49 Part of the reason he was successful was because he knew how to leverage internal incentives and how to bolster the self-esteem of his Marines. It was Puller’s charismatic authority, not his rational authority, that gave him the legendary appeal that not only endures, but also brought great tactical success during real and extreme situations.

General Douglas MacArthur was also widely recognized as charismatic. MacArthur’s style, however, was seen as discordant with the Army’s emerging style of leader, which was in the mold of Marshall and Bradley.50 Despite his differences with the Army, MacArthur was relied upon heavily throughout his military career for important missions—and he delivered results. MacArthur led by example in World War I: he was gassed two times, led his men under fire, and, on many occasions, personally led raids that resulted in the capture of German prisoners of war.51 His methods and demeanor were unorthodox, yet he was known to be highly visible, praise his subordinates and carry himself in a respectable manner. He set an example of both physical and moral courage.52 MacArthur had an intuitive sense of the enemy and, it seemed, could almost divine what the enemy had planned before being surprised.53

Charismatic leadership is not one and the same with larger-than-life personality. To be sure, charisma gains others’ attention, but a leader can exhibit charismatic leadership without becoming a cultural icon. Henry Ware Lawton was an Army officer who served in the Civil War, the Apache Wars, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. He was described as highly likable and attracted fiercely loyal followers. In 1881, the Apache raider Geronimo broke out of a reservation in Arizona and traveled to Mexico, raiding along the way. Lawton was tasked with leading the mission to either capture or kill Geronimo. The mission occurred over the course of four months and three thousand miles. The context of the mission illustrates the importance of charismatic leadership in helping accomplish the mission. Temperatures nearing one hundred and twenty degrees, lack of water and treacherous passages characterized the journey. In addition to heat exhaustion, the Soldiers experienced sanitary problems—and resultant sickness—from things such as excessive flies and spoiled food, both of which transmitted disease. They also had to negotiate with villagers as they passed through various territories, and had to remain alert for Mexican troops shadowing them, looking for their own chance to settle scores with Geronimo. Despite all of these challenges, not to mention the lack of junior officer support, Captain Lawton was able to maintain troop cohesion within his mission.54 

Highly motivating, charismatic leadership will be especially critical during LSCO to counteract the pull toward unit disintegration that may occur with loss of leader confidence or with leader succession. Without a ready and motivating officer to fill a leadership void, a fluid group will turn to someone it trusts. These shifting group dynamics, in a context of a disconnected, volatile environment, may create situations where unappointed leaders from within the group compete for power during a leadership dilemma. Groups often have informal leaders who are in some way unofficially elected to authority status simply by the way the individual members of the group look up to them for leadership.55 Such an informal leader from within the unit may emerge as a leader after catastrophic losses of formal leaders, or may receive deference over the formal leader if the group loses confidence in the leader. This deference may be more likely when leadership is blamed for losses, defeats or simply for the fog, friction and chance of war. Furthermore, the corporate style of Army leadership may be inadequate to accommodate for leader succession after catastrophic losses, such as when the group does not have confidence in the newly appointed leader. It is within these situations that a charismatic leader can emerge from the group and supplement—or supplant—rational authority for charismatic authority. These automatic group processes underscore the importance of increasing Soldiers’ confidence in leaders across the rank structure and of preparing units for leader succession.

It is important to note that charismatic leadership is different from transformational leadership. Transformational leadership focuses on leadership as a change agent.56 Although transformational leadership includes the quality of charisma, it is not charismatic leadership. Charismatic leadership fosters an intense relationship between the leader and the group. There is no assumption with charismatic leadership that the group mission must lead to organizational change. Transformational leadership is also dependent upon rational authority, unlike charismatic leadership, which can emerge within the context of rational authority or can be entirely independent of rational authority. Indeed, charismatic leadership is grounded in charismatic authority and does not require a rational authority structure as a foundation for obedience.

Dangers of Ineffective Leadership

A fundamental observation of group dynamics is that groups produce leaders.57 Groups experience anxiety without a leader, and they move to identify a leader if one is not immediately identifiable. When groups are in a state of panic, they are receptive to a leader who is seen as capable of leading the group into fight or flight.58 This leader is often identified by personality and the ability to evoke the allegiance of group members.59 Accordingly, in situations of group crises, rational authority may be subordinated to charismatic authority if rational authority is seen as ineffective in meeting the group’s challenges. This has benefits, particularly if mission failure would occur if not for charismatic leadership filling the void, but it also has drawbacks. Leaders who emerge under these circumstances may not be equipped to lead the group on its intended mission other than out of its state of panic. They might also have negative psychological qualities that may go unchecked when in a state of extreme stress or when empowered by exaggerated group allegiance.60 Groups devoted to a charismatic leader have been known to eschew the group’s larger purpose and work solely to meet the idiosyncratic needs of the leader, at times committing heinous acts to appease the leader.61 Even when groups focus on organizational goals, their outcomes may be distorted due to negative charismatic leadership. Corruption in organizations, for example, that occurs under the guide of charismatic leadership, is often justified by the belief that it serves the betterment of the organization, when it really only serves the charismatic leader’s interests.62 

Groups without strong leadership can harm the mission and grossly offend basic values of humanity. On 29 January 1863, Soldiers from the U.S. Army California Volunteers massacred an estimated two to four hundred Northwestern Shoshone Indians.63 The massacre occurred after the Soldiers sustained a large number of casualties early in battle. On 16 March 1968, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, killed four hundred Vietnamese civilians. Soldiers alleged that the company commander indicated that all in the village were to be considered enemy combatants and killed.64 In 2003, a group of Soldiers committed abuses against Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These abuses occurred within the context of combat, operational stress and disengaged leadership.65 Although these are not specific examples of charismatic leadership gone bad, these instances illustrate that military units are vulnerable to ill-advised behavior on the battlefield, which could be facilitated or enhanced when obedient to negative charismatic leadership. A specific recent example of a negative charismatic leader-follower relationship in the military was the extremist group FEAR, which operated from 2011–2012. In this group, a junior enlisted Soldier was the ringleader of a number of Soldiers who committed criminal acts and conspired against the government.66 Thus, as with any orders, Soldiers who encounter charismatic leaders during leadership dilemmas must remain vigilant for the possibility of unlawful orders. 

The lack of attention to charismatic leadership in the Army not only prevents capitalizing on its positive qualities, but it also fails to prepare Soldiers for identifying and potentially interacting with negative charismatic leadership. This can result in leadership dilemmas, that should be resolved before moments of crisis, instead being encountered during times of intense stress when cognitive faculties and emotional control are diminished.67 Rather than working toward identification and resolution of these issues while sitting at the Dining Facility on an FOB, or after responding to emails in an office, Soldiers could find themselves facing leadership dilemmas in the aftermath of a devastating attack, during preparation for breakout from encirclement or during the confusion and exhaustion of the battlefield. The Army could certainly benefit from harnessing the charismatic qualities in potential leaders who emerge during times of stress while preparing Soldiers to understand the difference between positive and negative charismatic leadership. 

The fate of Regimental Combat Team 31 (RCT-31), which found itself entrapped east of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, illustrates the perils associated with degraded leadership and other command and control (C2) functions, and it provides a springboard for understanding the connection between leadership and group cohesion. This example is not intended to oversimply the situation that these Soldiers experienced, or to imply that leadership can alter all outcomes. Leadership can, however, harness power within organizations that may lie dormant and can thereby create possibilities that were not initially manifest. Thus, the numerous challenges encountered by RCT-31 offer a way of highlighting the centrality of leadership in the most difficult of circumstances. 

RCT-31, a unit of approximately three thousand Soldiers, sustained over ninety percent of its unit killed, wounded or captured east of the Chosin, when it was trapped by over three times its number of Chinese forces. The Task Force was plagued by a number of problems, including poor communication, lack of fuel and ammunition, hastily planned breakout, depleted officer and non-commissioned officer leadership, fatigued Soldiers and a number of environmental factors—most notably, extreme cold.68 Survivors identified communication as a major problem within the task force. During the breakout, some elements did not even know the unit was moving out until they saw other elements evacuating their positions. Hundreds of Soldiers functioned leaderless at times. Officers who instructed Soldiers to carry out an attack on Hill 1221, an enemy position, encountered resistance as the Soldiers were reluctant or unwilling; some deserted once the attack began.69 A lieutenant who served in the task force observed that it was difficult to maintain control after the officer ranks were decimated.70 A captain in the unit opined that the collapse in command was due to the loss of most of the leaders in the companies and platoons.71 A sergeant observed that people would not give or take commands. After the breakout, the wounded were evacuated, leaving behind 385 able-bodied Soldiers in the fight, who were attached to the 7th Marine Regiment and who participated in the subsequent 1st Marine Division breakout.72


The different operational landscapes expected during LSCOs will create strains on the Army system of authority that did not exist during the decades of counterinsurgency. The challenges of enemy overwhelming numbers, fire superiority and disrupted C2 may create high combat losses, mission complications and depleted morale. These challenges could result in a breakdown of rational authority as external incentives, such as pay and avoidance of disciplinary action, no longer motivate obedience. The loss of rational authority would cause disorganization within units. 

When faced with seemingly impossible odds, would Soldiers go their own way rather than obey orders that they perceive to be unfair, incompetent or futile? And, would Soldiers closely obey the next leader in the line of formal succession rather than an informal leader whom they trust? What becomes of the unit—and of the mission—when the person in command does not have the imprimatur of authority? In the throes of group disorganization, a charismatic leader may resonate with the group, attract obedience based on charismatic authority, and lead the group out of its state of chaos. The Army must understand how it will deal with leadership crises and whether it will provide latitude for charismatic leadership. 

Charismatic leadership exists within the ranks as a latent potential. The Army may benefit from embracing charismatic leadership before crises emerge to ensure there is a bulwark against unit disintegration. This form of leadership can be cultivated through experiences that allow leaders to express themselves naturally in an environment that does not stifle authenticity. Consider the recommendations made by Lieutenant Colonel E.H. Burba in his 1943 treatise, Hints for Combat.73 Leaders must engage in substantial pre-combat training with their units to develop an instinctive obedience to the mission. Burba’s remarks have a charismatic quality and cannot be mistaken for a detached, corporate style of leadership.74 Training in austere environments is the best way for this tendency to develop. Such environments provide some of the uncertainty and challenges that require all Soldiers to assert themselves, and they require leaders to work closely with their groups to achieve results. Leaders thus begin to develop a more personal understanding of the Soldiers under their charge, and those Soldiers begin to understand the humanity of their leaders. Thus, unit training in austere environments should be more frequent and should purposely challenge leadership across the ranks to remain in the trenches with their Soldiers. 

The Army’s concept of leadership must also be open to innovation. Leaders must feel free to harness not just their cognitive abilities and institutional leverage, but must be able to tap their emotional energies for leadership application. This may be difficult in a corporate environment that emphasizes process and procedure over creativity. The latent charisma that exists within the Army can be harnessed, for example, through Soldiers’ use of social media. Soldiers and leaders can be encouraged to develop social media that exhibits their charismatic qualities. This type of presence already exists for many in the form of an individual’s charismatic online presence and resultant followers. An Army specific approach to social media may inspire Soldiers to follow leaders they admire and even seek to be in their units. 

Fostering charismatic leadership does not imply that rational authority is displaced. Charismatic leadership simply creates internal incentives to remain loyal to the group and the leader, and a charismatic leader may very well be the formal leader who also works under the auspices of rational authority. Ultimately, however, charismatic leadership can serve as a bulwark for rational authority at any time, but especially in the more difficult moments when rational authority might be challenged.

★  ★  ★  ★

Major Karl Umbrasas, PsyD, is an active duty Army clinical psychologist stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. Umbrasas has written and published on topics related to intelligence, counterterrorism and future warfare. His graduate degrees include MAs in defense and strategic studies, intelligence and terrorism studies.



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  33. Ricks, The Generals.
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  49. Laver and Matthews, The Art of Command, 145.
  50. Ricks, The Generals, 96.
  51. William Martin, “An Analysis of the Military Strategy of Douglas MacArthur,” Student Report, Air Command and Staff College, 1984, 8.
  52. “A Soldier Born to Fame: MacArthur’s Brilliance and Egoism Led to Both Victory and Controversy,” New York Times, 6 April 1964.
  53. “A Soldier Born to Fame,” New York Times.
  54. Michael E. Shay, Henry Ware Lawton: Union Infantryman, Frontier Soldier, Charismatic Warrior (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 2017).
  55. C. Dean Pielstick, “Formal vs. Informal Leading: A Comparative Analysis,” The Journal of Leadership Studies 7 (2000): 100.
  56. Conger, Charismatic Leadership in Organizations, 11.
  57. W.R. Bion, Experiences in Groups and Other Papers (New York: Basic Books, 1959), 147; C. Fred Alford, Group Psychology and Political Theory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 2.
  58. W.R. Bion, Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, 147; Jerrold Post, Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 73.
  59. W.R. Bion, Experiences in Groups, 178.
  60. Jerrold Post, Narcissism and Politics, 74; Abraham Zaleznik, “Charismatic and Consensus Leaders: A Psychological Comparison,” in The Irrational Executive, ed. Kets de Vries (New York: International Universities Press, 1984), 118.
  61. Lorne Dawson, Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 145.
  62. Ruth Aguilera and Abhjeet Vadera, “The Dark Side of Authority: Antecedents, Mechanisms, and Outcomes of Organizational Corruption,” Journal of Business Ethics 77 (2008): 442. 
  63. Michael Anderson, “Bear River Massacre and the Ethical Implications for Large-Scale Combat Operations,” Simons Center Special Report: Ethical Implications of Large-Scale Combat Operations (2019): 15–17.
  64. Ricks, The Generals, 294.
  65. Paul Bartone, “Understanding Prisoner Abuse at Abu Ghraib: Psychological Considerations and Leadership Implications,” The Military Psychologist 20, no. 2 (2004): 14.
  66. Nadya Labi, “Rogue Element: How an Anti-Government Militia Grew on a US Army Base,” The New Yorker, May 2014.
  67. Thomas Wiegele, Gordon Hilton, Kent Oots and Susan Kisiel, Leaders Under Stress: A Psychophysiological Analysis of International Crises (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985).
  68. Roy Appleman, East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1987), 305.
  69. Appleman, East of Chosin, 316.
  70. Appleman, East of Chosin, 318.
  71. Appleman, East of Chosin, 319.
  72. Appleman, East of Chosin, 306.
  73. E.H. Burba, “Hints for Combat” Military Review 23, no. 7 (1943): 17.
  74. Burba, “Hints for Combat,” 17.


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Lead photo by Sergeant Jamar Marcel Pugh, ARNG