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Oprah Winfrey as a Charismatic Leader Report

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Updated: May 16th, 2020


Oprah Winfrey is one of the most famous celebrities in the USA and in the world, and one of the richest people on our planet (Geoghegan par. 4). Having become a host of a talk show many years ago, she captured the hearts of millions in America and worldwide; her followers seem to have deep personal feelings towards their charismatic leader. In our paper, we will consider the situation of her becoming this famous after she started hosting the show, try to find out the reasons for this, and look into Winfrey’s characteristics as a leader in more detail.

There exists quite much literature connected to the topic of leadership and motivation. In our study of Oprah Winfrey’s case, we will use three books directly concerning the theme, as well as numerous articles and other materials related to the subject of leadership, motivation, and types of power, as well as texts and videos about Winfrey’s life and activities.

The first book we are going to use, labeled Contemporary Leadership Theories: Enhancing the Understanding of the Complexity, Subjectivity and Dynamic of Leadership and written by Ingo Winkler, includes materials aimed at supplying the reader with foundations of theory of leadership. The book also has a goal of drawing its reader’s attention to the challenges faced by this theory today, such as the existence of a wide range of theoretical approaches related to studying and implementing the theory in question.

The author makes an attempt to turn over the popular approach according to which many contemporary works on leadership are based; this common approach looks for an answer to the question “What makes an effective leader?” and tries to implement the findings as norms. Winkler, on the other hand, makes an emphasis on description, though does not make objections against these norms (Winkler 1). The book contains detailed descriptions of nine popular theories and approaches to leadership, or types of this phenomenon.

The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: An HBS Centennial Colloquium on Advancing Leadership, edited by Harvard Business School professors Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, comprises articles related to the topic of leadership. The articles provide a detailed consideration of what leadership is and why this notion is so important in the contemporary world; discussions of how the topic is related to many other areas of study; a careful look into how to implement various leadership strategies in various situations connected to the world of business and the life of society.

This collection of articles includes works related to history, economics, psychology and sociology, providing a broad interdisciplinary view of the leadership, effectively allowing these disciplines to make their donation into the exploration of this important phenomenon. The book also scrutinizes some challenges encountered by today’s leaders, such as the ones created by globalization, the need for rapid innovation, etc.

In his book Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter G. Northouse gives account of the contemporary studies of leadership. He treats leadership as a multi-sided phenomenon, and attempts to consider each side. The author then analyzes various kinds of leadership. The analysis is carried out by using a clear, defined pattern: description – strengths – criticism – application – case studies – leadership instrument – summary. Therefore, the book not only focuses on the theory of multiple approaches to interpreting leadership but also provides its readers with the opportunity of facilitated understanding of the phenomenon and the chance to immediately model situations to which this leadership style would or would not apply.

It is important to point out that the book does not only consider the classical approaches to leadership, it also comprises chapters looking into some issues which are timely today, and relates them to the topic of leadership. For instance, the book includes such themes as gender and leadership, culture and leadership, ethical aspects of leadership. Northouse’s book can be useful to anyone who wishes to get a quick and clear basic understanding of the contemporary theory of leadership, as well as for those needing to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of this theory.

The Inspirational Leader, a book by John Eric Adair, a famous authority on leadership, is written in an unusual manner: it takes the form of a dialogue between the author and a young chief executive. The CO attended some courses on leadership and motivation in the past, but, after getting the post recently, understood the need to learn more to be able to face the real challenges of the job, and asked the author for help, which the author provides in the book (Adair 1). It should be noted that Adair believes that leaders are made, not born (Adair 158); so, throughout his book, he gives his vision of various aspects of leadership and teaches the reader what traits they should develop and what kind of things they should do in order to successfully lead, motivate, and inspire.

Ignite the Passion – A Guide to Motivational Leadership is written by Peter A. LaPorta, a man who successfully led a large number of people in various organizations for more than 20 years (LaPorta vii). His book introduces some basic principles that each leader should possess in order for them and their subordinates to succeed in their tasks. It is also filled with practical advice about motivation and inspiration; the author tells stories in order to illustrate this advice and provide an example of how to use it. The book can become a practical guide for anyone who wishes to be an effective leader, as well as be helpful for analyzing and assessing the job done by other leaders.

Now, after we have described some literature we have used in our study, it is possible to proceed to the study itself.

External Environment & Strategic Challenge

Oprah Winfrey started working in the media at the age of 16, and her television career began when she was 19 (Petersen par. 5, 3:15, 5:15). Her initial work as a news anchor was not very successful, though; it is stated that Winfrey unduly sympathized with people she reported about, which eventually led to her demotion (Johnson-Sterrett 30). She continued working on TV, but in a new role, as a co-host for a talk show “People Are Talking”. This time, her endeavors were much more successful, because the format of the show allowed for deep personal communication and relating to people; it is emphasized that she was able to ask the guests of the program the questions that the viewers wished to ask (Johnson-Sterrett 30-31). The show quickly became popular, and Oprah, having been invited to Chicago to host a different show, decided to accept the offer (Johnson-Sterrett 31).

This is how Winfrey began hosting a morning TV talk show “AM Chicago” in 1984. It rose to the most watched show in Chicago in a month, was renamed to “Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1986, and became the “top syndicated talk show” in the US in 1987 (“Harpo Inc. History” par. 6-7). It eventually led Oprah to becoming one of the most famous people in the US and one of the richest people on the planet (Geoghegan par. 4).

Therefore, it appears that the main external challenge that Winfrey initially encountered was the fact that she was too sympathetic towards people and could not hide her emotions, while the environment (news programs on television) required her to be much more reserved. Oprah wasn’t able to change her attitude and was demoted; but this demotion permitted her to find her niche. Talk shows were the place where Winfrey could realize herself, because they enabled her to talk frankly and openly, in accordance with her character. Her followers (the audience) appreciated it, for the issues she talked about were very timely for most of the audience of such programs.

For instance, a large part of them were familiar with the problems of sexual abuse (or at least highly sympathetic with its victims), obsession with being overweight, etc., and wanted to believe that honesty and goodness were to be rewarded in this world, which was exactly what Winfrey would speak about (Geoghegan par. 8-17). Things that were discussed in the show, or, particularly, things that Winfrey had to say, were generalizeable in some respect, and could be applied to a large part of the public (Lagace par. 8). Oprah was able to relieve “the weight of the defeat” for many, motivating them to move forward, which is a very important skill for a leader (LaPorta 165-166). Thus, it is no wonder that Winfrey, having experienced serious trouble (similar to what many people also had) and overcome them, became the leader for so many, inspiring them and giving them hope.

Strategic Vision

According to Oprah Winfrey, during her career, she always relied on her instincts to choose the future course of actions. In her interview at Stanford University, Oprah constantly stresses that, on every point of her path, she “listened” to “what felt like truth” for her, to what seemed right (Petersen par. 5, 06:55, 09:35). While still working as a news anchor , she felt that reporting the news “wasn’t for her”, and even now she is convinced that “knowing what you don’t want to do is the best possible place to be if you don’t know what to do” (Petersen par. 5, 07:30, 08:10). She had “vision for what the future was, even though couldn’t place exactly where the future would be” (Petersen par. 5, 16:45). And Winfrey accepted a new invitation and came to Chicago, because she felt that it was her place to be.

As for Winfrey’s perception of her mission, she states that “my real contribution… is to help connect people to themselves and the higher ideas of their consciousness. I’m here to help embrace consciousness” (Petersen par. 5, 21:15).

Therefore, it seems that Oprah’s has never had any scrupulously calculated long-term strategy that she held to; she has relied on her “gut” to determine her “vision”. She was very successful in her course of actions, though; Winfrey has been called one of the most influential people in the USA and worldwide more than once (Pomerantz par. 1-2).

On the other hand, it is noted that Oprah, despite being a public person, at the same time manages to remain secretive, and not many is known about her inner life, as well as about her business (Geoghegan par. 29). Still, it might be claimed that, despite making stress on “consciousness”, Winfrey appears to be an intelligent, but rather an anti-intellectual leader (meaning that she only appeals to “inner feeling”, not to rationality, to lead a person in their life).

The Leader

We have seen that Winfrey seems to be quite an open-minded person who tries to change the world for the better. Despite difficulties in her life, she always remains optimistic and confident that what she does is right, and that, sooner or later, it will pay off. When she only began co-hosting her first talk show, she already possessed some skills and experience from working as a news anchor, but, according to Oprah, she was mainly driven by her instincts and inner feelings, and she simply knew what to say and what to do. She always behaves confidently and openly (still managing not to reveal some specific things about her life or business, though (Lagace par. 10-15)), and says what she thinks in quite a straightforward way.

She seems to keep to ethics and integrity (for instance, after an incident during her show, when her show guest had been publicly humiliated by another guest of hers, Winfrey decided that she would never let it happen again, and that she is “not gonna be used by television, I’m gonna use television as a force… we’re gonna use it as a platform to speak to the world” (Petersen par. 5, 24:40)). Oprah doesn’t seem to have particular influence tactics, again, being driven by her intuition. She is friendly towards her followers and tries to help them, in particular, by the mentioned “connecting” them to their “consciousness” (Petersen par. 5, 21:15); she is also widely known as a philanthropist.

The leadership style of Oprah Winfrey is definitely charismatic; her fans follow her because she “embodies… exceptional magnetism” (Nohria and Khurana 314). It can be described by applying House’s theory of charismatic leadership (qtd. in Winkler 32-33): she has a vision of what is right and how to behave; she is willing to take personal risks to achieve it (for instance, she moved to Chicago in spite of the fact that virtually everyone told her that she would fail (Petersen par. 5, 10:35)); she is sensitive to her follower needs, being a philanthropist and helping people to “connect” to their “consciousness”; she always relates to people while communicating with them; and she exhibits behaviors that are out of ordinary, for instance, speaking absolutely frankly about her being sexually abused, or overweight, etc.

It is also possible to apply path-goal theory to describe Oprah’s leadership style. She clarifies the path for her followers, reduces obstacles by providing examples of how to act. She also always tries to understand the perceptions of those who she is talking to and to be sympathetic towards them.

Winfrey has been described not only as a charismatic leader but also as a transformational one, for, as was mentioned above, what she tries to do is change people, supply them with a “sense of vision and mission”, inspire “millions worldwide to dream big”, and show the way to deal with problems (“Oprah Winfrey, a Transformational and Charismatic Leader” par. 1-3; Northouse “8. Transformational Leadership”).

On the other hand, it is asserted that charismatic and transformational leadership are often defined in the ways which make them almost equal (Northouse “8. Transformational Leadership”); therefore, it is sound to apply both categories to Winfrey.

Charismatic leadership has its strengths and weaknesses. Some of the strengths of charismatic leaders that apply to Oprah Winfrey are: the ability to motivate people, encourage them to take action, inspiring them with her own example; being perceived as friendly and benevolent; and being loved by her public. In Adair’s terms, she might be called a wise leader, for she possesses experience and intelligence, and goodness as well (53). On the other hand, some of the important weaknesses of Oprah as a leader are the inability to produce or clearly communicate exact ways of dealing with problems, mainly simply advising them to follow their instincts; and the over-reliance of her followers on her, which, combined with Oprah’s possible inability to clearly put her ideas across, can amplify the negative results for her followers.

Leading Others

Let us consider what type of influence and authority Winfrey has. According to a classical power taxonomy, there exist five main types of power: reward, coercive, legitimate, expert, and referent powers (French and Raven). Information power was added to this taxonomy later (Raven). From the facts stated above it is clear that the type of power that should be attributed to Oprah Winfrey is the referent power, for most of her audience follow her because they respect her, admire her success, at the same time possibly perceiving her as a friend.

When Oprah first started her chat shows, her being sympathetic towards her guests, her frankness and openness quickly captured her audience’s hearts (Geoghegan par. 8-17). At the same time, there was something in her shows that one could generalize and apply to their own situation (Lagace par. 8). This is why Winfrey was able to gather such a large audience so quickly. As people admire Oprah and believe that she is a wise person whose advice and example will help them with their problems, it should be added that the celebrity possesses a certain extent of expert and information powers, as well.

The referent power that Winfrey achieved during her broadcasts has proven extremely effective, for it allowed Oprah’s show to become one of the most popular TV programs in the US. This type of power was also appropriate for this situation; it might be argued that reward, coercive, and legitimate types of power either would not be able to draw so much attention to the screens, or would be impossible to realize via this type of communication.

Organizational Culture

Soon after her rise in 1984-1986, Oprah founded her own production company, Harpo Inc, in 1986 (Garson xii-xiii). This company gained the right to broadcast “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1988 (“Harpo Inc. History” par. 9). Because this show is what made the celebrity one of the richest and most famous people of the world, we believe it would be reasonable to analyze the organizational culture of “Harpo Inc.”

On the other hand, it is quite a difficult task, for the information about Winfrey’s company that is publicly available is scarce (Lagace par. 12-13). Furthermore, the company has also been called “highly secretive”; Smith highlights that its employees are required to “sign extensive privacy and confidentiality agreements” (par. 3). It has been reported that the company is hard to work for, which is compensated by high salaries (Smith par. 4). Smith also assumes that the company’s management is probable to aim at motivation and retention (par. 2).

We will use Rao’s model for evaluating the company’s culture (292-293). It appears likely that Oprah’s company is aimed at innovation and is outcome- and customer-oriented. Judging from Winfrey’s general attitude, her firm is probably not very attentive to details of work. It is hard to say whether or not Harpo Studios is people-oriented (although it is known that the work is hard, but salaries are high), whether or not it is team-oriented, aggressive and encourages rivalry (though probably not), and if it is aimed at “stability”, i.e. “preservation of traditional moral values” (Oprah is rather a controversial person in this aspect: religious, but e.g. is known to support gay marriage). It also seems likely that the company has a strong organizational culture.

As we can only make guesses about Harpo’s organizational culture, and some of these guesses are based on Winfrey’s personality, it is impossible to determine the actual relationship between the culture and the celebrity’s style. It is also hard to point out strengths and weaknesses of organizational culture we don’t have the data about.


An important insight we have gained while studying Oprah Winfrey’s case is related to charismatic leadership and based on the fact that she can only work effectively where she feels that she belongs, and that in other cases she is unable to become a strong leader. It appears to us, therefore, that a charismatic leader such as Winfrey has to find their specific niche to lead people; otherwise, the leadership situation will not emerge.

Summing up, we can say that, as we have argued, Oprah Winfrey is a charismatic leader who relies on her “inner feelings” to decide what is right, and who leads her fans mainly through referent power. Her followers follow her because they develop a strong emotional correlation between themselves and their leader.

Works Cited

Adair, John Eric. The Inspirational Leader: How to Motivate, Encourage & Achieve Success. London, UK: Kogan Page Publishers, 2005. Print.

French, John R. P., Jr. and Bertram H. Raven. “The bases of social power.” Group dynamics. Ed. D. Cartwright and A. Zander. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1960. 608-623. Print.

Garson, Helen S. . 2nd ed. 2011. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Google Books. Web.

Geoghegan, Tom. . 2011. Web.

. n.d. Web.

Johnson-Sterrett, Julia Deborah. The Rise of Oprah Winfrey as a Cultural Icon: A Qualitative Descriptive Analysis. Diss. Fielding Graduate University, 2007. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 2004. ProQuest. Web.

Lagace, Martha. . 2006. Web.

LaPorta, Peter A. Ignite the Passion – A Guide to Motivational Leadership. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2003. Print.

Nohria, Nitin, and Rakesh Khurana. Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: An HBS Centennial Colloquium on Advancing Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2013. Print.

Northouse, Peter G. . 7th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2015. Google Books. Web.

. 2014. Web.

Petersen, Deborah. ”. The Former Talk Show Star Offers Career and Life Advice at Stanford Graduate School of Business. 2014. Web.

Pomerantz, Dorothy. . 2013. Web.

Rao, P. Subba. Organisational Behaviour, Mumbai, India: Himalaya Publishing House, 2010. Print.

Raven, Bertram H. “Social influence and power.” Current Studies in Social Psychology. Ed. I.D. Steiner and M. Fishbein. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1965. 371-382. Print.

Smith, Nicole. . 2012. Web.

Winkler, Ingo. Contemporary Leadership Theories: Enhancing the Understanding of the Complexity, Subjectivity and Dynamic of Leadership. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Science & Business Media, 2010. Print.

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