Finally, there is the charismatic source of authority. Someone has assumed authority—or is at least influential—because they can “put on a good show.” It actually goes much deeper than this. Charismatic authority relates directly to the issue of projective identification—a fancy and somewhat elusive concept offered by those psychologists and organizational consultants who are oriented toward the work of Sigmund Freud and more recently the psychoanalytically-oriented object relations theorists and practitioners.
Stated all too briefly and simply, projective identification is a process by which we identify some part of ourselves that is in some way threatening to us (and our sense of self). As a result, we assign this part to another person (where this is accurate or non-accurate) and then come to admire this person for their real or unreal manifestation of this part. For instance, we might find that our own anger about the way our group is functioning is a bit frightening (since we don’t know what would happen to us if we expressed this anger in the group). We then identify someone else in the group that we believe is also angry (often without any good reason for making this assumption – other than they look like someone who should be angry).
If other members of the group also project their expression of anger onto this person, then they are likely to become a “fight leader” in this group (provided they actually have any inclination toward anger about the group process). With this projective identification on the newly appointed fight leader, those providing the projection can sit back and remain safe. They are watching the fight take place under the leadership of the recipient of their projection.
The “fight leader”, in turn, is a victim of something called “role suction.” They are trapped in being required to always lead the fight and the opposition in the group. They can play no other role. The reward for them is often charismatic authority. They become highly influential in the group (even if this influence is viewed by many as a form of obstruction or petty-mindedness). If the newly appointed fight leader can be viewed in some way as “the other” in the group (only woman, only racial minority, etc.) then the projection can be particularly powerful and hard to overturn.
There is one other important point to be made about projective identification. We have both found out, all too painfully, that if we have been successful in pointing out role suction and projective identification in a group with which we were consulting – and have liberated the recipient of the projection—it often requires that the group “audition” a new person to assume this constraining role. Within a few days (or even a few minutes) a new “fight leader” emerges—with or without their permission.
It is hard to break up this dynamic form of authority in a group. Charismatic authority comes at a major psychological price—which is the loss of freedom and the acquisition of power only by playing a specific role in the group. Ultimately, the group must “grow up” and no longer rely on charismatic authority. This can only occur if they identify the reason why they are relying on this form of authority and determine ways in which the issues being held by the charismatic leader can be addressed in an open manner, aided by legitimate forms of authority (expert and positional).Download Article 1K Club