How do influential leaders use language to engage followers? Can we distinguish a toxic leader from an ethical one based on use of language? A new study in the Journal of Management Inquiry (JMI) highlights the fascinating differences in the rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler to understand how different types of charismatic leaders communicate their visions. Jill L. Robinson and Danielle Topping, both of the University of Redlands, published “The Rhetoric of Power: A Comparison of Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr.” on July 24, 2012 in JMI. Click here to read more OnlineFirst articles.
Charismatic leaders present intriguing examples of the use of power through language. The prevailing neo-charismatic perspective, however, is based predominately on Western theories and research examining U.S. presidents. This study moves beyond this sample by examining language differences between a moral and a toxic leader. Content analysis was used to explore the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler, whose distinct motives play out over their careers and during crises. Although some differences were predictable (i.e., Martin Luther King Jr. used more Optimistic language, whereas Hitler was higher in Power and Aggression), the changes over time suggest keys to their differing motives. Among other findings, Martin Luther King Jr. was remarkably consistent in his rhetoric, whereas Hitler used increasing Power and Aggressive language as his career progressed. While not providing definitive answers, these preliminary results suggest that further study is warranted into the complex interactions between rhetoric and leadership.
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