As we head into a long and probably unpleasant political season, I have been thinking about the topic of charisma—a trait that voters and average citizens crave in their leaders and politicians. They want leaders with whom they can connect and who can move them to action. They want leaders who can generate emotional attachment and who can inspire commitment and trust.
If I ask an audience to name charismatic leaders, they inevitably mention John Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. Some will mention Bill Clinton or Oprah Winfrey. These individuals have generated strong positive emotional connections that led to actions such as working for political campaigns or becoming loyal fans or followers.
If I ask a group to define charisma, however, I have met with silence. Most of us cannot define charisma, but we recognize it when we see it.
The trait is so elusive that even researchers often steer away from studying it because of the difficulty in finding a suitable definition. However, some researchers have explored this characteristic and have proposed some interesting theories about charisma.
Ronald Riggio (2010) suggests that charisma includes “overlapping components such as expressivity, sensitivity, control, eloquence, vision and self-confidence.” Riggio also pointed out that charismatic Presidents such as Reagan, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, used far more metaphors in their speeches than less charismatic Presidents such as Harding and Hoover (Flora, 2005) (Oppenheimer, 2008).”
Frank Bernieri explores synchronous behavior as a component of charisma. When two people are “in sync,” they adjust their posture and rate of speech to one another. Bernieri suggests that charismatic people attract synchronization through speech patterns and movement. They are able to influence others to synchronize with them (Flora, 2005).
Joseph Roach argues that individuals display charisma when they simultaneously show contradictory characteristics such as being aggressive yet caring, strong yet vulnerable. John Neffinger used Elvis Presley as an example of this phenomenon when he said, "Elvis was a tough greaser who crooned love ballads to his sweetheart - that'll do it (Oppenheimer, 2008)."
Neffinger, drawing on work at Harvard and Princeton and the American National Election Studies, teaches clients how to be more charismatic by focusing on "nonverbal cues" that indicate strength and warmth. Using Oprah Winfrey as an example of strong physical presence, he points out erect posture and avoidance of weak gestures such as hunched shoulders, upraised palms or “self-comforting gestures” such as rubbing one’s arms. The greatest indicator of warmth is a genuine smile that includes the eyes and mouth. However, he emphasizes that the smile cannot be so strong that it detracts from the strong physical presence (Oppenheimer, 2008).
As you see, some very diverse opinions exist about what constitutes charisma. In addition to these descriptions, I would add that charismatic leaders demonstrate a strong vision. The speak forcefully and they are persuasive, and they are usually very competent and self-confident.
Like Neffinger, my own study of leadership focuses primarily on physical presence using what I call the Six Positions of Power and Influence: Stability, Resolution, Flexibility, Connection, Nurturing and Mindfulness. (These are fully explained in my Executive Presence Toolkit.)
All the manifestations of physical presence are important for leaders to master, and successful leaders demonstrate them in the appropriate contexts. The presence of “Connection” required for charisma attracts relationship and invites joy. I offer the following suggestions for leaders who want to enhance their charisma factor:
- Be centered. Breathe. Be comfortable and mentally present.
- Be aware. Put others at ease. Recognize their emotions. Show real interest in them. Learn to mirror their movement and rate of speech in a genuine way.
- Be knowledgeable. Show passion and commitment.
- Be eloquent. Communicate commitment through metaphor and imagery.
- Be exuberant. Show emotion. Show joy. In appropriate situations show sorrow.
- Be sincere. Generate trust.
- Be yourself. Above all, be authentic.
In addition, leaders who exhibit the physical presence of Connection most often demonstrate the following physical characteristics:
- Their body is relaxed.
- Hands and arms are relaxed and palms may be visible and inviting.
- Energy seems to emanate from the center of the body and surrounds the person or group sharing their space.
- The eyes and face are soft and fully aware of other people, looking directly into the eyes of the person with whom they are speaking.
- Their smile is genuine.
- Their voice is appropriate to the emotional context.
- They may physically express a certain amount of vulnerability or humility.
More difficult than defining charisma is the problem of achieving it. Some authors question whether it is possible to learn to be more charasmatic. As Riggio pointed out, “Nothing can turn Al Gore into Bill Clinton” (Greer, 2005). However, it seems clear that leaders can learn skills associated with charisma. They can be sensitive to the mental, emotional and physical traits that build relationships and attract others to them. By reviewing the components of charisma described above and discussed in the references below, leaders can learn how to make better connections with those around them, build stronger relationships, and achieve more satisfying results.
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- Boyer, L. (2011). CONNECT: Affective Leadership for Effective Results. Bradenton, FL: Leadership Options.
- Flora, C. (2005, May 1). The X-Factors of Success. Retrieved from Psychology Today:
- Greer, M. (2005, January). The science of savoir faire. Retrieved from American Psychological Association:
- Oppenheimer, M. (2008, July 20). Charm school: Scholars unpack the secrets of charisma, and suggest the elusive quality can be taught. Retrieved from Boston.com:
- Riggio, R. (2010, February 15). Charisma: What is it? Do you have it? Retrieved from Psychology Today: Cutting-Edge Leadership.