Persuading the Masses

Imagine standing in front of a crowd of millions and preaching to them about your ideology as the crowd cheers and applauds your message. Imagine lavish parades and festivals being thrown in your honor while the people are suffering and dying in your own country yet the people still obey and worship the ground you walk on. Many leaders around the world and throughout time have achieved this level of obedience and respect from their people even when the greatest human rights abuses are hidden under a thin veil of alleged modest intentions and recited by a snake oil salesmen. What does it take to make large groups of people follow a radical ideology?

Only part of the equation is the leader himself and the other part can be any combination of environmental, political or economic factors. Several factors must exist in the right place and time in order to become a leader, but in order to maintain power over a people you must implement tactics, sometimes unethical, to keep the mob’s attention. Adolph Hitler leveraged several of these factors to persuade the German people to become the mob and scapegoat the Jews as the source of Germany’s problems. As one of the most extreme forms of mob mentality and persuading the masses, Adolph Hitler began his campaign to eliminate the Jews from his idea of a perfect Aryan race and could of succeeded if not for the intervention from the Allies. Still, he managed to wipe 6 million Jews off the face of the Earth in a relatively short period of time. The power of persuasion is especially strong for those who have the backing and support to launch a propaganda campaign to serve their cause. The only event likely to match the slaughter happened much earlier in history in what is now America where millions of Native American tribes were pushed to the brink of extinction by the invasion of the European settlers and later the government who launched a campaign of terror against the tribes backed by propaganda used to instill fear in the people.

5 Factors for Life by Sun Tzu

“The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) the Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) the Commander; (5) method and discipline.” 

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State.”

“Conceal your dispositions, and your condition will remain secret, which leads to victory; show your dispositions, and your condition will become patent, which leads to defeat.”

“Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”

“When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes; but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.”

-From The Art of War by Sun Tzu

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the term charisma has two senses (1) compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, (2) a divinely conferred power or talent. In the Oxford Dictionary of English, for some theological uses the term is charism, which holds the meaning of sense 2 in this case. The term, since the beginning of time, has been used in varying meanings and related words in religion, social science, media and throughout Western societies. Synonyms for charisma include alluring, bewitching, captivating, fascinating, charming, enchanting, engaging, magnetic and seductive. The word itself and the people that embody it can make other “drink the Kool-Aid” so to speak and taken to an extreme like in Adolph Hilter’s case can become dangerously powerful which something that this article will explore as well as give additional examples from history and today.

In Laurence Rees’ book, Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss, he explores the famous dictator’s years in power and his influence over the people, but for article the focus will be on the seven aspects of his charismatic leadership which Rees believes is the key to understanding Hitler’s success. According to Rees, the man was “incapable of normal human friendships, filled with rage, full of prejudice and unable to sustain intellectual argument. When we see him on the old newsreels today he looks like a ranting lunatic with a bad haircut and worse mustache. Yet this man became one of the most powerful human beings in the world, instigated the Holocaust, and altered millions of other lives — all for the worse. How was it possible that he ever came to power and stayed in office for so long?” Through his research, Rees met hundreds of veterans from the war including a number of people who encountered Hitler directly to develop the seven aspects outlined below:


Charisma exists only in a connection between the individual who is perceived as charismatic and their audience. Only because, in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Hitler was able to articulate in a dramatic way many of the fears and prejudices already felt by his audience was he able to be successful.
In the words of Hans Frank, who heard Hitler speak in a Beer Hall in 1920, ‘he uttered what was in the consciousness of all those present’.


Charismatic leaders despise detailed policy. There is an element of personal conviction, bordering on the magical, associated with the decision making process of a person with charisma – a magic the committee room destroys. And Hitler took this idea to extremes, outlining a wild fantasy of a world based on race and hatred in which ‘racially pure’ Germans were a superior people – a broad-brush vision that many found inspiring.


Hitler’s ability to connect with a large audience of supporters, often by reinforcing and then heightening their existing beliefs, combined with his inability to interact in a normal everyday way with individuals, helped create Hitler’s ‘charisma’ as a leader. Hitler, almost incredibly, could be both intimate with an audience and distant with an individual.


Hitler was always certain in his views – he debated with nobody. During the 1920s and early 1930s he insisted that he would be made Chancellor – even though some doubted it would ever happen. But events proved Hitler right, and after he was made Chancellor in January 1933 many people subsequently believed he was infallible in his judgment. ‘The Führer is always right’ almost became the motto of the whole Nazi state.


It is virtually impossible to overestimate the importance of enemies to a charismatic leader. As Hitler discovered, it is much easier for charismatic leaders to define themselves by who they hate rather than by what they believe in. And Hitler was never in doubt about the single category of people he hated above all others – the Jews.
In his fantasy world the Jews were to blame for Communism, the excesses of Capitalism, liberalism, Germany’s economic woes and a whole catalog of other problems. It was all a lie, of course, but because anti-Semitic prejudice already existed, and the Jews were a small but defined group in Germany, then millions of others were content to persecute them.


Strange as it might seem to us today, Hitler was perceived by many as an optimistic figure during the 1920s and 1930s. He promised a world where Germans – other than German Jews, of course – could recover their honour after the defeat of the First World War and in which the economy would flourish. After hearing him speak in the early 1930s, Albert Speer, for example, concluded that ‘here, it seemed to me, was hope’.


Max Weber, the German social theorist who first analyzed ‘charismatic leadership’, wrote that leaders can only retain their charismatic appeal in the long term if they preside over a series of successes. And Hitler’s career is proof of Weber’s theory. Whilst belief in Hitler’s charisma grew as a result of his foreign policy successes in the 1930s, and peaked after the German defeat of France in 1940, it waned after the German loss at Stalingrad in February 1943.
At the end, the general view of Hitler was summed up by one anonymous German civilian, whose views were recorded in a Nazi intelligence report in 1944: ‘It’s always claimed that the Führer was sent to us from God. I don’t doubt it. The Führer was sent to us from God – though not in order to save Germany but to ruin it.’

According to Max Weber, a sociologist and economist, charismatic authority is one of three forms of tripartite classification of authority, the other two being traditional and rational-legal authority. Max Weber defines charismatic authority as “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” Sociologist also use the terms “charismatic domination” and “charismatic leadership” to describe charismatic authority. In politics the following are considered part of this group according to Weber’s definition (according to Wikipedia): William Aberhart, Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, Pim Fortuyn, Mahatma Gandhi (also involved in religion), Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, John F. Kennedy, Rajiv Gandhi, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Wałęsa, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Lenin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, George Patton, Huey Long, Nelson Mandela, Eva Peron, Idi Amin, Malcolm X, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander the Great, Cicero, and Julius Caesar. In religion the following would fit under this term: Jesus, Abraham, Muhammad, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Swami Vivekananda, Billy Graham, Charles Taze Russell, Moses David Berg, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Moses, Nirmala Srivastava, also called Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, Prem Rawat, known to his students as Maharaji, Rajneesh also called Bhagwan and Osho, Siddhartha Gautama “Buddha” and Werner Erhard. Another subdivision of religion has the following charismatic cult leaders: Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, Charles Manson and David Koresh. Finally one of the most charismatic leaders in academia is none other than Albert Einstein.

Charismatic authority according to Weber allows “power to legitimize on the basis  of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.”  It relies on the leader entirely as the absences of a leader for any reason can lead to the power dissolving, however due to its idiosyncratic nature and lack of formal organization, charismatic authority relies on perceived legitimacy of authority than Weber’s other forms of authority. A charismatic leader relies on unchallenged beliefs that the leader has been touched by God like a guru or profit in the religious context. Should the belief fade, the power can quickly fade which is one way this form of authority is unstable. Weber saw charismatic authority as not a character trait but as a relationship between leader and followers where the validity of the charism is in the recognition by the leader’s followers. Weber believes the leader’s charisma will disappear if he is “abandoned by God” or if “his government doesn’t provide any prosperity to those whom he dominates”.

Charismatic authority will endanger the boundaries set by traditional or rational legal authority by challenging this authority thereby it is seen as revolutionary. This type of authority becomes a part of society thereby eliminating the challenge that it presents to society and become routinized. As Weber believes by routinization, the charismatic authority changes and is “succeeded by a bureaucracy controlled by a rationally established authority or by a combination of traditional and bureaucratic authority.”  For example in religion, Muhammad was declared the prophet among his followers and then succeeded by traditional authority and structure of Islam demonstrating the idea of  routinization. In politics, charismatic rule can be seen in authoritarian states, autocracies, dictatorships and theocracies. In order to maintain rule many leaders will establish a personality cult so that when the leader of the state dies or leaves office with no successor in place such regime fall due to no routinization.

Since the authority is centralized around one leader, the leader of a nation would need to make prior arrangements in order to continuing the established order of rule like North Korea or even the United States has. The society that sees an end to this type of leader can chose to move to anther format of leadership or transfer the authority from one leader to another leader by succession. The methods of succession, according to Max Weber, include: search, revelation, designation by original leader, designation by qualified staff, hereditary charisma, and office charisma. The various ways listed enable the individual and society to maintain the unique energy and nature of charisma in their leadership. Weber’s model has given way to institutionalization by several academics.  According to Eileen Barker, new religious movements tend to have founders or leaders who use a considerable amount of charismatic authority and have special powers or knowledge. Barker rationalizes that these leaders are unpredictable therefore not bound by traditions or rules and may control every aspect of their followers lives. Barker cautions that leaders may lack accountability, require unquestioned obedience and encourage dependency upon the movement for everything. Following psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, Len Oakes an Australian psychologist argues charismatic leaders exhibit traits of narcissism and display extraordinary energy mixed with inner clarity unhindered by the anxieties and guilt ordinary people feel.

According to Professor John Antonakis, of Business and Economics of the University of Lausanne, charisma can be defined as a symbolic leader influence in which the leader stands for something that resonates with followers. The influence itself is rooted in the leader’s values, passion and arguments something Aristotle refers as ethos, pathos and logos. Leaders use charisma’s powerful effects through verbal and non-verbal charismatic leadership tactics triggering vivid vision that followers can almost see, smell and touch. Leaders can do this through storytelling or transmitting the message metaphorically by contrasting their position with an unsatisfactory position posing rhetorical questions to focus followers on the issues to create interest and get the people to think differently. The proof they provide lies in the examples they give in the form of list usually in threes where they talk about their values – right, wrong, good, bad; then capture, reflect and harness the sentiments of the group, and finally link these hopes, fears, and expectations to their own vision. The charismatic leader sets the goals high and communicate with confidence that they can be achieved through their voice, face and with their body. Antonakis found that when used the person is perceived as more charismatic as well as competent, trustworthy and more likeable. Leaders are looked at as role models and how they act cascades through the organization. The more turbulent the economic situation, the more individuals will look to a leader to reassure them, give them hope and lead people in the right direction.

As Ronald E. Riggio, points out Charismatic leaders are very skilled communicators who are both verbally eloquent and able to communicate to followers on a deep, emotional level. They can arouse strong emotions in their followers through articulating a compelling or captivating vision. Charisma requires the interaction between the qualities of the leader, the followers,their needs, identification with the leader and a situation that calls for a charismatic leader such as a crisis or need for change. One of the most important aspects is how the leader communicates the message and whether he is able to gain followers’ trust as well as influence and persuade them to follow. Most politicians have developed their ability to communicate through speeches, working the room with donors and supporters, etc. Riggio believes the best way to describe these leaders is through transformational leadership which goes beyond charisma. The traits required for this to work is idealized influence or the ability to be  a positive role model someone who walks the walk and talks the talk, inspirational motivation or the ability to inspire and motivate follower to perform at their best, intellectual stimulation or challenging followers to think outside the box and individualized consideration or being responsive to feeling and needs of followers. The biggest problem that can derail a leader is arrogance, lack of concern and responsiveness to followers and constituents as politicians and CEOs have demonstrated time and time again. Leaders believing they are above the law and committing ethical violation can lead to their demise unless they learn from their mistakes and setbacks and succeed more than they fail.

“He who advances without seeking fame,
Who retreats without escaping blame,
He whose one aim is to protect his people and serve his lord,
The man is a jewel of the Realm”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

3 thoughts on “Persuading the Masses

  1. Ann says:

    I want to to thսank you for thіs wonderful read!!
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  2. Hoyt Ramsey says:

    You made some good points there. I looked on the net for additional information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this site.

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