Extensive research and numerous studies examining the benefits of charisma confirm that people with high levels of charisma are happier, healthier, enjoy more success in their chosen careers and possess increased resilience to the challenges and difficulties that life presents. If the advantages of charisma are so appealing, why then do the majority of organisations shy away from developing the charismatic potential of their leadership team?
An undesirable attribute
There are people who subscribe to the theory that charisma can not be taught, you either have it or you don’t. Other people perceive charisma as a form of psychological bondage that poses an inherent risk for their organisation. I remember when our Business Development Director had a meeting with a major High Street Financial Institution. During the presentation he was a little surprised when their HR Director asked: “Do we really want charismatic leaders?” Charisma can trigger a strong negative reaction because of the legacy left by disgraced and selfish charismatic leaders. Remember the public outcry about the former CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred Goodwin, media publisher, Robert Maxwell and disgraced jewellery tycoon, Gerald Ratner?
Even when an organisation’s charismatic leader has proved to be an asset to the organisation, what happens to the business after the leader has moved on? How would the public and investors of the Virgin Empire react if Richard Branson exited his connection with the Virgin brand? The former CEO of Sainsbury’s – Justin King optimised his charisma and created a tripling of profits during his ten year tenure. Yet on the day he resigned almost £400 million pounds was wiped off of Sainsbury’s share value. Little wonder that corporate values across the world rarely feature charisma as a desirable leadership competency.
The dark side of charisma
This corporate prejudice against charisma pales into insignificance when looking at the impact of charisma on an entire nation. Historical writer and documentary maker Laurence Rees produced a disturbing 3 part series -The Dark Charisma – based on Adolf Hitler, an awkward, dysfunctional man who developed a level of charismatic attraction almost without parallel in history. Memories of Hitler sends many subconscious messages that charisma is an evil manipulator and highly dangerous when possessed by a meglamaniac. Adolf Hitler was without question an extraordinarily charismatic presenter. Certainly in terms of his rise to power, his personal charisma was one of the most effective tools that he used to tap into the collective psyche of the German people. The Harvard Business Review published an interesting view from Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic , international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing. Dr Premuzic argues that, amongst other things, charisma disguises psychopaths, distracts and destructs, and is responsible for ‘downgrading leadership to just another form of entertainment’. Whilst I disagree with much of Dr Premuzic’s article, it is well written, and certainly mirrors the distrust that the business community seems to have about charismatic leaders. This sweeping generalisation that some individuals may use their charismatic presence inappropriately, often prevents corporations from taking charisma seriously. Whilst I concur that charisma can be used for good, or for evil – that distinction need not prevent an individual or their organisation from benefiting from what is a genuine competitive advantage. As with any soft skill, there is a mantle of responsibility inherently implied for the charismatic leader.
Charisma increases success
Today most leaders, acknowledge that a charismatic leader appears to effortlessly attract loyal and supportive followship. Charismatic leaders attract more publicity and more attention from outside groups as well as exerting a strong (albeit invisible) bond with their organisation’s workforce. Numerous studies and experiments have been conducted that prove conclusively that charismatic leaders are more successful. According to many different credible research sources* Charismatic Leaders, outperform their non-charismatic peers by an average of 60%.
Charisma improves engagement
Charismatic Leaders build higher levels of workforce engagement and there is a proven link between double-digit growth and high engagement levels. The Cremer and Knippenberg report, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 2002, used scenario experiments, cross-sectional surveys and laboratory studies to prove that inspirational and charismatic leaders had a stronger effect on cooperation than their non-charismatic counterparts. Charismatic leaders affect both their followers and the organisational culture. They are capable of altering workforce attitudes, beliefs and motivation, making changes that are not easily implemented through conventional leadership approaches alone.
Charisma and talent
A 2014 survey that analyses employment trends* revealed that attracting the right talent and skills as biggest challenges for employers over the next decade. Great people want to work for great leaders. The greatest differentiator among the organisations of the future will be the ability to build world-class capability and skills. The war for talent exists at all levels of an organisation and charismatic leaders are more effective with attracting and retaining talent because they enjoy better quality relationships. It’s little wonder that the leader who possesses most charisma also has a natural tendency to attract followers who are the crème de la crème of talent. Mark Carney, the Canadian who took over as the governor of The Bank of England in July 2013 has a movie-star brand of charisma that has seen people’s perceptions towards Canadians move from zeros to heroes in the UK. People are now queuing up to work for the trendy and eco-friendly Carney who has transformed the staid Bank of England culture into a genuinely exciting and collaborative place to work.
Charisma and resilience
The belief that leaders have the endless stamina, ideas, and skills it takes to deliver success year after year is an old fashioned fallacy. Today’s Leaders have to be able to bounce back, cope, renew, and revitalise. They need to be tough. They need to be resilient. There are two related issues with regards to resilience. Firstly, a passion for excellence can take them only so far; leaders will burn out if their physical, emotional and mental limitations are ignored. A recent study by Korn-Ferry found that 90% of leaders were let go due to physical or mental conditions that impaired their leadership effectiveness. Secondly, organisational changes planned without consideration for the impact on the human condition, will not only cause current leadership to falter, but they will also cause the next crop of leaders to be inefficient and ultimately everyone will suffer. Charismatic leaders possess more natural resilience because they are ultimately more authentic and more ‘heart’ focussed. They tend to have high self worth and greater self awareness. It takes less energy to be yourself than it does to be the person you think others expect you to be. Charismatic leaders place more importance on heart count rather than head count efficiency. You can read more about why charisma naturally builds high levels of resistance in chapter five.
Charisma and health
Charismatic people have a positive acceptance about themselves and often have the same positive belief in others. This provides the ideal inner environment for developing our potential and the qualities of charisma. Because charismatic leaders are more comfortable in their own skin, they operate in synchronicity with their immune system and consequently their health. When we feel good our brain releases chemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin that perpetuate this feeling of balance and strengthens our immune system and ensures good health. When we feel stressed, our hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of our brain sets off an internal alarm system. Cortisol is released into our system and activates our fight or flight response. Cortisol is not supposed to remain in our system for long because it alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive, reproductive and growth systems. When we experience long term stress at work our whole system becomes anxious, paranoid and fearful. Our job is then literally killing us. Consequently charismatic leaders tend to be healthier when compared to their less charismatic peers.
What is charisma?
How can you develop your own charisma without knowing exactly what it is? During general and everyday communication, different words mean different things to different people. Certain phrases trigger a strong emotional response in some people yet not in others. So imagine the variety and scope of meanings people can attribute to something as abstract and intangible as charisma? When I don’t understand the meaning of a particular word, a quick look at the online dictionary gives me instant clarity and understanding. So at first glance, Wikipedia and The Oxford Dictionary both describe charisma as a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others and a divinely conferred power or talent. As you then start to explore under the surface of what charisma really means, you’ll find a multitude of leadership experts, scholars, sociologists, organisational psychotherapists, coaches and gurus, who give numerous and contradictory views on defining charisma.
In 1947, renowned German sociologist, Max Weber, categorised leadership into three styles and defined the charismatic style as a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’ from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. Webers choice of language is very provocative; ‘supernatural’ ‘superhuman’ ‘exceptional’. These words immediately place charisma into the scarcity box because how many people do we know who we could describe using those three words? Weber perceived charisma as a set of traits or distinguishing qualities, such as being visionary, energetic, unconventional and exemplary. This view contrasts with studies by Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Robert House, who determined in 1977 that charisma is a set of behaviours. House cited behaviours, such as exhibiting high levels of self-confidence, persistence, determination, passion and optimism. More recently, the theory that charisma is created from different component parts or behaviours and can be learned and perfected by anyone is cited by Olivia Fox Cabane in her book, The Charisma Myth. In 1995, Fernando Molero, an expert researcher in charisma and Transformational Leadership proposed a new classification of charisma, based on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. This stated that charisma is the individual’s ego, driven by a desire to become a dominant father figure. Another refreshingly different perspective is offered by Gerry Spence, renowned US trial lawyer who describes charisma as energy from the heart zone. Dr Tony Alessandra, Leadership Motivator, plays it safe with his definition that charisma is an ability to influence others positively by connecting with them physically, emotionally and intellectually. The more I searched for a definitive definition of charisma the more confused I felt. Looking closely at the Robert House/Olivia Fox Cabane definition means that you would need to improve your charisma by developing different charismatic behaviours. Yet what if these – charismatic behaviours – are not aligned with who you truly are inside? If on the other hand you accept Max Weber’s definition then you have to accept that you either have this ‘super power’ or it’s game over for you on the charisma front.
Seeking a relevant definition
Each and every one of us has the potential to be both charismatic and uncharismatic. Because we recognise and understand this shared inconsistency in others, charisma can be really hard to define. Understanding and defining charisma becomes easier when we understand what it is not. Charismatic Leadership will be effective, both in the short and long term. Uncharismatic Leadership will be most effective in the short term (as anybody who has ever needed to get a teenage son or daughter out of the house to a tight deadline will testify), but it won’t captivate hearts and minds. Charisma is not confidence, you don’t need to have a big maverick personality to possess it. Charisma is not charm and it does not appear with trained communication skills. In 2008 Alan Chapman, owner of a free online educational resource – BusinessBalls and I ran a competition for six months to encourage business people to submit their own definition of charisma. From the hundreds of responses we gathered, I became even more aware that charisma meant different things to different people and that I needed to create my own definition.
Learning from charismatic icons
I studied the behaviours of four charismatic icons who had been filmed in many different situations. These individuals, in my view, exhibited extremely high levels of charisma. I began looking for behavioural similarities. This proved to be a challenge. Margaret Thatcher used eye contact as a decisive, authoritative tool, whilst many of Elvis Presley’s most memorable performances were sung with his eyes closed. Martin Luther King spoke of peace with inflamed passion. Muhammad Ali, who made his name in an aggressive sport, spoke quickly with wit, humour and fast animated hand gestures. Thatcher and Ali both raved about their successes, regularly playing to the crowd, whilst King’s oratories appeared ignited with religious fervour and powerful metaphors. I noticed that Presley, often appeared humble and awkward when he wasn’t ‘performing’ especially during interviews when he stumbled over his choice of words. This gave me my first clue to the theory that charisma is contextual. Someone might be extremely charismatic in one context yet possess no charisma in another. My initial theory that any individual will become charismatic simply by replicating specific charismatic behaviours was completely wrong. As these charismatic icons demonstrate, they each show their charisma using different types of behaviours. Charismatic people stand out not because of their behaviours, but because of something innate within them that commands and compels our attention.
An inside out approach
Inspired by Louise Hay, renowned author and lecturer on the impact of thoughts on the body (‘when we really love ourselves, everything in our life works’), I began exploring whether charisma can be developed by adopting an ‘inside–out’ perspective. In other words, the external behaviours exhibited by charismatic people are a – ‘reaction to’ – or an – ‘effect of’ – an internal cause. I started looking at the inside causes of external charismatic effects. This eventually lead me to identify my blueprint for becoming more charismatic. Expanding on this principle, charismatic people are generally passionate about what they do yet each charismatic person manifests their passion in their own unique way. Martin Luther King’s body language, including his facial expressions, were relatively low key during his famous – I have a Dream – speech. His biblical cadences, the evocative pictures he painted and his evangelical delivery were the behaviours that indicated the passion he felt. Contrast these behaviours with those that Muhammad Ali demonstrated when speaking of his passion to win before a big fight. Ali would talk quickly with high energy and paint pictures with his hands. His varied vocal range was varied and sprinkled with lots of commanding tonality. Both Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali were passionate about their subject yet each man expressed their passion with different behaviours. Imagine if Muhammad Ali tried to emulate Martin Luther King’s behaviours? It’s likely he would have appeared fake and lacking in authenticity. Charismatic people speak with their heart and soul. If you try to emulate Martin Luther King or any other charismatic individual you admire, you are effectively putting on a mask that causes you to emulate behaviours that are not necessarily a reflection of the real authentic you. This immediately dilutes your emotional intensity and inhibits the flow of your natural charisma. If you are not behaving in alignment with who you truly are, then others will unconsciously or consciously sense – something just isn’t right about you – and they will disconnect from you emotionally.
My definition of charisma
I define charisma as an authentic power that captivates the hearts and minds of others. To put it another way, when you are being you, and you love what you do – you shine. This definition begins to explain why charisma is contextual. The charismatic individual who shines in a career context can be almost invisible in a social or home environment. A performer or a politician may dazzle when they are in the public eye, because what they are doing is important to them. Put them in another setting and they merge to become one of the crowd. If the late Martin Luther King was asked to deliver a speech on boxing, would his passion, authenticity and charisma have shone through in the same way? This definition differs from the stereotypical view in two key ways. I do not believe that an extrovert or having a ‘big personality’ is a pre-requisite to being charismatic. On the contrary. The single most important factor that determines an individual’s charisma is the extent that they are able to ‘captivate hearts and minds’. Often you’ll find that quietly confident, introverted people are every bit as charismatic as their more self-publicising counterparts.
This view is supported by a study reported in Business Week showing that a more reserved style of introverted leaders can actually inspire better performance in followers. Researchers Adam Grant of the Wharton School, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, and David Hofmann at the University of North Carolina found that if the employees are an extroverted, proactive bunch by nature, the team will perform better under the leadership of an introvert than under an extrovert. The study goes on to explain that introverted leaders are more likely to take a team approach to problem-solving and to let talented team members spread their wings.
Within my own experience I am sure that we can all think back to leaders, managers, teachers or mentors who have patiently drawn out our opinions, encouraged our creativity and have genuinely valued and shown appreciation for our contributions to the achievement of a collective goal. These people may not all have met the regulation blueprint of a charismatic leader, but they managed to ‘captivate our hearts and minds’ none-the-less. When we think of charismatic and introverted people who have had enormous impact on the world – there are many examples. Mahatma Ghandi, Meryl Streep, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Princess Diana and even Robbie Williams, often showed a quiet vulnerability that somewhat disproves the claim that you need to be an extrovert to be charismatic.
Charisma and authenticity
The key to charisma is authenticity. One of the most exciting television projects I did was as an Official Political Commentator for Aljazeera during the 2010 live UK election debates. Working with the Professor of British Politics (who was required to commentate on the leaders’ policies), my role was to commentate on their authenticity and charisma. I remember watching Gordon Brown as his insecurities around being pitted against his two younger adversaries were demonstrated in the form of aggressive and often rude behaviour. Shortly afterwards I watched Gordon give his resignation speech that he had written himself. As he spoke from his heart, his warmth and ‘humanness’ shone through and I wondered why he had not just been himself during ‘The Lives’. In business, as in politics, alarm bells start to ring when a leader’s ‘from the heart’ emotional response seems a bit too coached. I remember watching Tony Blair in 1997 as he announced the death of Princess Diana. I was filled with a sense that he was delivering a brilliant speech designed to tug at our heart strings. It felt a bit too contrived. When the words just don’t match with the body-language, and especially when our hard-wired unconscious mind just feels that there is something less than authentic about them, we will experience a negative reaction that we often can’t quite explain logically. This may well be why we love our sporting heroes to be charismatic in the absolute stereotypical –big, brash, confident, sense of the word! When Muhammad Ali, with absolute unshakeable self-confidence, stared down the camera and stated that he was ‘The Greatest’, we believed him, and we didn’t start looking for any hidden agendas, because there were none. I would go as far as to say that we expect our sporting heroes self-esteem to be developed close to the point of arrogance, otherwise it just doesn’t seem authentic. Unconsciously we question whether they have that all -important ‘will to win’. For me, Andy Murray won more fans for losing to Federer at Wimbledon in 2012, and letting us see just how much that loss hurt him, than he did by reversing the result several weeks later at The Olympics. Conversely, because we have a fundamental belief that politicians are – first and foremost -public servants, for us to see them as authentic, (and therefore charismatic), we need them to show far more humility than our ego driven sporting heroes. Our Political Leaders draw their charismatic appeal not from their displays of confidence or self-esteem, but from their vision, driving force and devotion to their mission or purpose. We believed in Nelson Mandela because he showed us, with his suffering and sacrifice, that he really cared. Nobody could ever doubt that Ghandi wasn’t passionate about the plight of his people, or that Martin Luther King not only had a dream, but that he totally believed in it.
In business, the leaders that we recognise as being truly charismatic have the ability to walk that fine line between letting us see that they possess huge drive to be successful, whilst at the same time, demonstrating an appreciation and understanding of their ethical and social responsibilities. The really interesting thing is that, in business, as in politics and sport, at the point when a charismatic leader ceases to be authentic, at the moment when he or she fails to connect at an emotional level, their charisma is lost, and the spell is broken.
If an individual lacks authenticity, if they don’t mean what they say, they will dilute the strength of their character and consequently the strength of their charisma. Some individuals compensate for their lack of internal and external congruency by over developing their external charm. If you try to emulate any other charismatic individual you are effectively acting and wearing a mask of charisma.Whatever external mask you choose to wear, if it doesn’t reflect the genuine, authentic ‘you’ this will automatically convey a superficial aspect to your personality. The only way to be truly charismatic is to be authentic and speak from your heart.
Heart felt communication
In our western culture, many of the leaders that I have worked with feel uncomfortable when they see that part of my charisma definition mentions – heart – . Many organisations already have strong and robust processes in place to build employee engagement. Leadership teams are generally good at winning the – minds – of their people. Engagement and motivation are emotional responses, an unconscious as well as conscious desire to work with heart and soul for the benefit of their leader and their organisation. When leaders cannot communicate with their heart, and find difficult to express their emotional side, they generally struggle to build engagement, and often encounter even more resistance to changed ways of working. Heartfelt communication triggers serotonin and oxytocin – chemicals that naturally increases empathy, feeling good and trust.
Charisma and the vagus nerve
There is a scientific explanation that explains why some leaders can evoke a strong positive emotional response and attract massive followship. The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago refers to the vagus nerve as the nerve of compassion. This is because it stimulates certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication and it reduces the heart rate to promote a feeling of calm. Studies suggests that there is a connection with oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and empathy. Consequently, the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, are more likely to be altruistic, compassionate, feel gratitude, love and happiness. Genuine charisma boosts the vagus nerve activators and draw people towards them without effort in an almost unconscious manner.
Classical economic theory is not enough
In a sense I agree with experts who say that charisma cannot be taught because charisma is a already within all of us. You don’t have to become someone different to become more charismatic. You just need to re-connect with who you really are inside and you’ll instantly light up like a Christmas Tree. Think about the attention a tiny baby creates. As we grow up, we learn how to play different roles that make it harder for us to remember the charisma we have inside. We wear different ‘faces’ to mask how we really feel. “I’m fine” is the biggest lie that millions of people tell every day. I once read a report about a high powered city business woman who has extensive Botox specifically so she can look neutral in meetings, fearing that her emotions may betray what she really feels inside. This struck me as intensely sad. In some corporate arenas, it’s not politically correct to show any emotion, in fact, some business people see emotion as a sign of weakness. Emotions play a far greater role in determining business outcomes across industries than many executives grasp as Gallup research continues to demonstrate. Classical economic theory says people make decisions each day by processing a set of objective information based on a rational economic model. In contrast Daniel Kahneman, senior scientist in the field of behavioural economics acknowledges that human beings are not entirely rational in their decision making. Those organisations who understand the role emotions play in predicting outcomes will ultimately perform better. Charismatic leaders emotionally engage their people because they are comfortable with engaging their own emotional responses.
Remembering who we truly are
The good news is that in order to increase your charisma you don’t need to learn anything new. You simply have to feel comfortable being you, connect with your emotions and find purpose and personal meaning in your everyday work. This may sound simplistic because it takes real courage to remain fundamentally true to who we really are inside – with every individual we meet – and in every context. Years of environmental conditioning often stops us from allowing our softer and therefore, more vulnerable side to show. Once we start to honour our true self we experience a feeling of euphoria at the sheer sensation of being alive. And in the same way that we never forget how to ride a bike this feeling of bliss is our birthright, it is a natural state that is within all of us, just waiting to be awakened.