Charismatic authority and football coaches as “leaders of men”

The Chicago Bears hired a new head coach this week. Prior to the hire, the conversation about what qualities the new coach should have reminded me of sociologist Max Weber’s definition of charismatic authority. Here is how one scholar summarizes the concept:

Photo by football wife on

According to Max Weber’s concept of “charismatic authority,” charisma is based on a social relationship between the charisma holder and the charisma believer. The Weberian perspective is not focused on analyzing the personality of the charismatic leader, but rather on the structure of the charismatic social relationship. The social structure that comes out of a charismatic relationship represents an emotional collectivization held together by an emotional bond with the leader. A charismatic leader is not only a person who is given great expectations and trust and to whom special skills are attributed. A charismatic leader constitutes a new leadership, a new structure of social relationships, and a new cognitive definition of the situation of social action.

Contrast this with some of what I heard a successful coach should be able to do:

-connect with players

-hold players accountable for performance

-have a track record of success

-help players develop and grow

-command any situation

-show confidence

-have a plan and execute it

-build and sustain a (successful) culture


Many of these traits can be expressed in different ways. Measuring some of them is difficult. Can a number of them only be ascertained by having a close relationship with the coach and/or being in the same room and experiencing the charisma and magnetism of that coach?

To some degree, these traits apply to numerous leadership roles. The football coach as a “leader of men” is glamorized and masculinized but business, civic, and political leaders are supposed to embody at least a few of these these traits as well. Those who do well might have the charismatic authority, those who do not make it do not.

Can Malcolm Gladwell’s writings lead to “the sociology of success”?

Sociologists might like Malcolm Gladwell but I wonder how many of them would go so far as to endorse a course titled “the sociology of success” based on his writings:

The Idea Lab has completed the first course of an ongoing educational offering called Krypton Community College, a free online/offline project based on a simple idea: We learn better when we do it together. Every four weeks, Krypton Community College presents a different course, based around the work of an acclaimed author / teacher / scholar / speaker – someone with something to say and a track record doing it. The first course, No. 001, was based on the works of acclaimed leadership expert Seth Godin.From noon to 1 p.m. on Nov. 5, The Idea Lab will present the first session of four-week course No. 002 of Krypton Community College. “We are happy to announce that the second course, The Sociology of Success, comes from the works of Malcolm Gladwell,” Ashby said. “This course draws from Malcolm’s writings about how the society we build influences who we become, the heroes that lead us, and the choices we make.”…
Ashby explained how Krypton Community College works. “With every course, we meet each Tuesday for lunch for four weeks,” he said. “Everyone who enrolls in the course gets a PDF document with links to articles and other resources. We come together to discuss and encourage each other to dive deeper into the work.”

On one hand, perhaps this takes advantage of what Gladwell does well: synthesize social science research and create interesting narratives. People who might typically not consider sociological ideas can attend this lunch course and learn something.

On the other hand, perhaps this is “pop sociology” at its worst: quickly scanning the works of Gladwell in a hour and hearing sociology through a journalistic lens. Even more problematic might be the title of the whole class – finding “success,” whatever that means, or talking about leadership. This course isn’t really about sociology but rather than American values of getting ahead with a veneer of academic respectability.

In the end, I would be suspicious that there is much sociology in this one lecture. Granted, this isn’t a full course but it seems like a very limited sociological approach.