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Becoming your most charismatic self

Some people may be born with charisma, but it turns out managers can train themselves to become more compelling leaders.

Peter Drucker, my favorite managerial touchstone, didn’t think much of leadership charisma. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth as he describes, in his 1992 book, Managing for the Future, being asked to run a seminar on “how one acquires charisma” by a vice president of HR at a big bank.

It’s the prelude to a bit of a rant. “History knows no more charismatic leaders than [the 20th] century’s triad of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao — the misleaders who inflicted as much evil and suffering on humanity as have ever been recorded,” Drucker fumes. “But effective leadership doesn’t depend on charisma. Dwight Eisenhower, [former Secretary of State] George Marshall, and Harry Truman were singularly effective leaders, yet none possessed any more charisma than a dead mackerel.”

Drucker’s antipathy toward charisma is understandable. An Austrian working in Germany, he witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler, and he was forced to flee to London a few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. But Drucker may have gotten this one wrong: He seems to be conflating the effects of charisma with the ends to which it is applied.

It appears, upon further reflection, that charisma does contribute to leadership effectiveness. “A meta-analysis of data spanning close to a quarter of a century has shown that charismatic leaders not only possess an ability to inspire their troops to ever higher levels of performance, but also simultaneously embed deeper levels of commitment in their psyche,” report academics Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks in their book, Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why.

Sounds promising. But what if a leader indeed possesses no more charisma than a dead mackerel? Can it be cultivated?

First, charisma needs to be defined — which, given its know-it-when-I-see-it nature, isn’t so simple. Martin and Marks admit that defining it is tough, but they call out a couple of characteristics that are present in leaders who are perceived as charismatic.

The first is the ability to articulate a collective identity and vision capable of promoting a sense of connection in followers. The second is a quality called surgency. The American Psychological Association defines surgency as a personality trait “marked by cheerfulness, responsiveness, spontaneity, and sociability but at a level below that of extraversion or mania.” I don’t associate surgency with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, but Martin and Marks see it as manifesting in behaviors, such as expressiveness, energy, and enthusiasm, that compel followers to listen to a leader’s messages and act upon them.

If this is right, it suggests that charisma, which comes from the Greek word charis, meaning a divine grace or charm, isn’t a magical endowment granted to only a chosen few. Rather, it is an outcome of a leader’s ability to communicate skillfully in specific ways.

Indeed, that is what John Antonakis, Marika Fenley, and Sue Liechti of the University of Lausanne concluded from a study (pdf) aimed at determining if they could teach middle managers to be more charismatic. The trio identified a set of “charismatic leadership tactics.” Then, they trained a random group of managers to use them. The result: Three months after the training, coworkers’ opinions of the managers as leaders improved.

The study’s authors surveyed the research on charisma to identify the verbal and nonverbal charismatic leadership tactics. They are:

• The use of metaphors to simplify messages, stir emotions, invoke symbolic meanings, and aid recall

• The use of stories and anecdotes to make messages understandable and memorable, and to encourage identification with the protagonists

• The articulation of moral convictions and shared sentiments to demonstrate alignment with the followers

• The setting of high expectations for oneself and communicating confidence in meeting these expectations to others

• The use of rhetorical devices, including contrasts to frame and focus messages, lists to give the impression of completeness, and rhetorical questions to create anticipation and puzzles that require an answer or solution

• The use of body gestures, facial expressions, and an animated voice to convey emotional states, demonstrate passion, and obtain support for what is being said

Charisma isn’t a magical endowment  granted to only a chosen few. It is an outcome of a leader’s ability to communicate using a combination of verbal and nonverbal skills.

Happily, there isn’t anything particularly complicated about learning to use these tactics. The researchers designed a five-hour workshop that described charismatic leadership and its importance. They explained the tactics and highlighted them with clips from movies such as Dead Poets Society. Then they gave the managers an opportunity to demonstrate the tactics in a speech and provided feedback on their performance. At the end of the session, they gave each manager the results of a 360-degree appraisal conducted prior to the training and copies of a couple of particularly effective speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address. Afterward, the managers constructed a brief personal development plan and practiced the tactics a few times per week.

If you want to boost your charisma quotient, you should be able to put your own charisma development program together. Unless, like me, you find the idea of watching Dead Poets Society again too painful to contemplate.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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