Most of us see charisma as that indescribable something, which makes a person engaging and magnetic. While it might be hard to pin down and describe, charisma is pretty easy to recognise: it is about enthusiasm, passion, energy and spirit – and making others feel the same.
Charisma is what allows leaders to paint a visionary picture of the future, inspiring growth and change. It can also motivate people to go above and beyond, as well as to get through tough times together (Remember though, charisma doesn’t mean everyone automatically likes you – just that they find you extremely compelling.)
While many experts believe that charisma is an invaluable asset for leaders, others suggest it needs to be carefully controlled. In excess, it can lead to hero worship. This can set off toxic behaviours: overconfidence and arrogance in the leader, and unquestioning obedience among the followers.
So, this week, my message explores charisma: what are its advantages as well as its dangers? And how can you learn to be charismatic without going overboard?
How much is too much?
A recent study at Ghent University in Belgium concluded that charisma is definitely an asset for leaders. However, after a certain point, the relationship between charisma and perceived leader effectiveness turns sour. Too much charisma can actually make you seem less effective, because people feel your focus is entirely on the big picture and lofty goals – rather than on-the-ground implementation and crucial details. The opposite is also true: leaders who are not charismatic enough are seen as overly involved with mundane tasks and incapable of long-term planning.
So, the ideal level of charisma is medium – enough for a leader to engage, inspire and be highly effective, without appearing obsessed with either grand strategy or minor details.
The DNA of charisma
The Ghent University study, which involved hundreds of business leaders, used four key traits to measure this elusive quality:
- Bold – A charismatic leader is confident, visionary and can inspire loyalty. Too much boldness can cause aggression and impulsiveness, while too little is indicated by a relaxed, modest attitude.
- Mischievous – In this context, mischief means the desire to do something interesting and engaging. High scorers are charming and witty, while low scorers are self-controlled and dependable.
- Colourful – If you are assertive, talkative and can communicate your own worth, you are at the optimum level. An excess could cause the need to have lots of things going on at the same time, while a deficit could limit you to being behind the scenes.
- Imaginative – High scorers are innovative, unconventional and get easily bored, while low scorers are sensible and conservative. Those with the right levels for leadership are unusual and insightful.
Learning to be charismatic
Most people think you have to be born with charisma – either you have it, or you don’t. In reality, it can be learned like any other skill. While you may not be able to achieve legendary magnetism levels, you can certainly increase your personal charisma in order to become a more captivating, influential leader. Even introverts can cultivate this quality, deploying it during one-on-one conversations and small group discussions instead of public platforms.
In their Harvard Business Review article, Learning Charisma, John Antonakis, MarikaFenley and Sue Liechti explain that any leader can work on developing their “charismatic leadership tactics” (CLTs). When a group of European executives doubled their use of CLTs in presentations, the ratings of their leadership competence jumped by 60 percent on average.
Here are the top recommended CLTs – focused on communication – to boost your charisma:
1. Metaphors and stories
A good metaphor can make your message crystal clear and drive it home. Choose concepts that your listeners can easily understand and relate to – steer clear of abstractions. The authors give the example of Joe, a manager in charge of an urgent relocation:
He introduced it by saying: “When I heard about this from the board, it was like hearing about a long-awaited pregnancy. The difference is that we have four months instead of nine months to prepare.” The team instantly understood it was about to experience an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding transition.
Stories also help engage listeners. You could use a personal anecdote to illustrate a larger point, or share a compelling tale to evoke specific values and emotions.
2. Lists and contrasts
Three-part lists are an excellent way of making your key takeaways memorable as well as digestible. Research shows that people tend to remember things in threes. For example, you could break down a strategy into three big steps: “We need to do three things to take on this challenge. Firstly… Secondly… And finally…”
The authors explain that contrasts are also an extremely effective yet easy-to-use CLT:
Contrasts are a key CLT because they combine reason and passion; they clarify your position by pitting it against the opposite, often to dramatic effect. Think of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
3. Questions that engage
A well-timed rhetorical question can resonate and remain with your listeners for a long time. It can also help create a sense of shared purpose and values. For example, a leader pushing for excellence in innovation might say something like, “Are we going to settle for mediocrity? Or are we going to make people sit up and say ‘wow’?”
4. Connection and belief
When you tap into the sentiment of the group, you make a big impact – even if the sentiment is negative. The authors offer the example of Rami, a senior IT director, reflecting the feelings of his disappointed team:
“I know what is going through your minds, because the same thing is going through mine. We all feel disappointed and demotivated. Some of you have told me you have had sleepless nights; others, that there are tensions in the team, even at home because of this. Personally, life to me has become dull and tasteless. I know how hard we have all worked and the bitterness we feel because success just slipped out of our reach. But it’s not going to be like this for much longer. I have a plan.”
Conviction and belief are also integral to charisma. If you are trying to get your team to achieve an audacious goal, it’s crucial that you actually believe it can be done – and communicate this feeling clearly. The true conviction of leaders can inspire people to achieve almost-impossible things.
5. Practice makes perfect
To be able to use CLTs spontaneously, you need to practice them. When you’re preparing a presentation or speech, incorporate and rehearse a few of the above tactics. Do the same for important team meetings or one-on-one discussions. Once you become comfortable with your favourite CLTs, you will be able to use them on the spur of the moment.
Curbing the dangers
Charisma can quickly shift from being positive to negative. In the Harvard Business Review article, When Charismatic Leadership Goes Too Far, Dan Ciampa highlights the five stages of this slippery slope. For leaders, these are warning signs to become more self-aware and reign in the excesses of charisma:
- Followers sense that the charismatic leader believes that s/he is always the smartest person in the room and doesn’t want to be challenged
- People begin to self-censor around the leader, avoiding questions and dissent. If you suddenly find everyone in your team agreeing with everything you say, that’s a red flag.
- Surrounded by praise on all sides, the leader becomes overconfident and creates their own warped version of reality
- Since only the leader’s opinions matter, everyone else becomes passive and stops making decisions. There is no buy-in – only commands from the top. Dissatisfied team members start looking for other opportunities.
- People become unenthusiastic and unengaged, stifling creativity and productivity. There is no common vision any longer. The formerly beloved leader feels unsupported.
In the end, charismatic leadership is a balancing act. If you aren’t naturally gifted with it, charisma is certainly worth learning. It can inspire deep loyalty and motivate your team to do incredible things – provided you keep it in check. To put it another way, don’t let charisma become your defining leadership trait. Let it go hand-in-hand with respect, openness and compassion.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.