Sociology/Max Weber – Authority (2)


Whereas rational-legal authority stems from the legitimacy of a rational-legal system, traditional authority is based on a claim by the leaders, and a belief on the part of the followers, that there is virtue in the sanctity of age-old rules and powers.

The leader in such a system is not a superior but a personal master. The administrative staff, if any, consists not of officials but mainly of personal retainers. In Weber’s words, “Personal loyalty, not the official’s impersonal duty, determines the relations of the administrative staff to the master”.

Although the bureaucratic staff owes its allegiance and obedience to enacted rules and to the leader, who acts in their name, the staff of the traditional leader obeys because the leader carries the weight of tradition—he or she has been chosen for that position in the traditional manner.

Weber was interested in the staff of the traditional leader and how it measured up to the ideal-typical bureaucratic staff.

  • The traditional staff lacks offices with clearly defined spheres of competence.
  • It also does not have a rational ordering of relations of superiority and inferiority.
  • It lacks a clear hierarchy.
  • There is no regular system of appointment and promotion on the basis of free contracts.
  • Technical training is not a regular requirement for obtaining a position or an appointment.
  • Appointments do not carry with them fixed salaries paid in money.

Weber also used his ideal-type methodology to analyse historically the different forms of traditional authority.

  1. GERONTOCRACY: involves rule by elders,
  2. PRIMARY PATRIARCHALISM: involves leaders who inherit their positions.

Both of these forms have a supreme chief but lack an administrative staff.

  1. PATRIMONIALISM: A more modern form it is traditional domination with an administration and a military force that are purely personal instruments of the master.
  2. FEUDALISM: limits the discretion of the master through the development of more routinized, even contractual, relationships between leader and subordinate.

All four of these forms may be seen as structural variations of traditional authority, and all of them differ significantly from rational-legal authority.

Weber saw structures of traditional authority, in any form, as barriers to the development of rationality. Weber argued that the structures and practices of traditional authority constitute a barrier to the rise of rational economic structures—in particular, capitalism—as well as to various other components of a rational society. Even patrimonialism—a more modern form of traditionalism—while permitting the development of certain forms of “primitive” capitalism, does not allow for the rise of the highly rational type of capitalism characteristic of the modern West.


The concept of charisma plays an important role in the work of Max Weber, but his conception of it was very different from that held by most laypeople today. Although Weber did not deny that a charismatic leader may have outstanding characteristics, his sense of charisma was more dependent on the group of disciples and the way that they define the charismatic leader.

To put Weber’s position bluntly, if the disciples define a leader as charismatic, then he or she is likely to be a charismatic leader irrespective of whether he or she actually possesses any outstanding traits.

A charismatic leader, then, can be someone who is quite ordinary. What is crucial is the process by which such a leader is set apart from ordinary people and treated as if endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least exceptional powers or qualities that are not accessible to the ordinary person.


To Weber, charisma was a revolutionary force, one of the most important revolutionary forces in the social world. Whereas traditional authority clearly is inherently conservative, the rise of a charismatic leader may well pose a threat to that system (as well as to a rational-legal system) and lead to a dramatic change in that system. What distinguishes charisma as a revolutionary force is that it leads to changes in the minds of actors; it causes a “subjective or internal reorientation.”

Weber focused on changes in the structure of authority, that is, the rise of charismatic authority. When such a new authority structure emerges, it is likely to change people’s thoughts and actions dramatically.

The other major revolutionary force in Weber’s theoretical system, and the one with which he was much more concerned, is (formal) rationality. Whereas charisma is an internal revolutionary force that changes the minds of actors, Weber saw (formal) rationality as an external revolutionary force changing the structures of society first and then ultimately the thoughts and actions of individuals.


Weber’s interest in the organization behind the charismatic leader and the staff that inhabits it led him to the question of what happens to charismatic authority when the leader dies. After all, a charismatic system is inherently fragile; it would seem to be able to survive only as long as the charismatic leader lives. But is it possible for such an organization to live after the leader dies?

The answer to this question is of the greatest consequence to the staff members of the charismatic leader, for they are likely to live on after the leader dies. Thus the challenge for the staff is to create a situation in which charisma in some adulterated form persists even after the leader’s death.

It is a difficult struggle because, for Weber, charisma is by its nature unstable; it exists in its pure form only as long as the charismatic leader lives. In order to cope with the departure of the charismatic leader, the staff (as well as the followers) may adopt a variety of strategies to create a more lasting organization.

  • The staff may search out a new charismatic leader, but even if the search is the new leader is unlikely to have the same aura as his or her predecessor.
  • A set of rules also may be developed that allows the group to identify future charismatic leaders.

But such rules rapidly become tradition, and what was charismatic leadership is on the way toward becoming traditional authority. In any case, the nature of leadership is radically changed as the purely personal character of charisma is eliminated i.e. routinization of charisma has started taking place.

  • Still another technique is to allow the charismatic leader to designate his or her successor and thereby to transfer charisma symbolically to the next in line.
  • Another strategy is having the staff designate a successor and having its choice accepted by the larger community. The staff could also create ritual tests, with the new charismatic leader being the one who successfully undergoes the tests.

However, all these efforts are doomed to failure. In the long run, charisma cannot be routinized and still be charisma; it must be transformed into either traditional or rational-legal authority.

If successful, charisma almost immediately moves in the direction of routinization. But once routinized, charisma is en-route to becoming either traditional or rational-legal authority. Once it achieves one of those states, the stage is set for the cycle to begin all over again.

However, despite a general adherence to a cyclical theory, Weber believed that a basic change has occurred in the modern world and that we are more and more likely to see charisma routinized in the direction of rational-legal authority. Furthermore, he saw rational systems of authority as stronger and as increasingly impervious to charismatic movements. The modern, rationalized world may well mean the death of charisma as a significant revolutionary force. Weber contended that rationality—not charisma—is the most irresistible and important revolutionary force in the modern world.