Many rock stars and successful actors have charisma – inspiring enthusiastic followers. Religious or cult leaders, and political figures have ‘it’, too – think Jim Jones and Obama, or Jesus and Hitler – depending on whether charisma is used as a force for good or evil.
As a coach who specializes in working with international development professionals, I encounter leaders who ask me to help them to be (more) charismatic for a variety of reasons – to get noticed and advance their careers, or to lead more effectively. This ranges from bringing people along with them to achieve the desired mission, to engaging stakeholders from donors to local communities.
If I ask people what ‘charisma’ is, it seems to be a very elusive thing – literally, ‘je ne sais quoi’ – I don’t know what. Clients might come up with qualities, characteristics, and traits like ‘confidence’, ‘being inspirational’ or ‘being an extrovert’ – however they find it very hard to pin down exactly what charisma is.
What is Charisma?
In Theory of Social and Economic Organization (published in 1922 as Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft), German political economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) called it a “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
Quite rare, for sure! For further details on Weber’s theory, see the Yale University open lecture on Charismatic Authority.
Charisma tends to include great oratorical skills, magnetic personalities, and the ability to persuade/bring people along – which is closely in line with the modern definition of charismatic leadership. And yet, it is also a relational quality – it requires followers. It must evoke emotions or provoke behaviour in others.
Gill Corkindale says, “Something else is at work, an indefinable something that makes certain people magnetic and attractive.” (On Charisma, Harvard Business review, April 05, 2007).
In fact, faced with this difficulty of pinpointing exactly what charisma is, a number of myths arise.
5 Myths of Charisma
1. You’ve either got, or you haven’t got, charisma
Most people believe that charisma is something you are born with – or not. This makes it very hard for someone to believe that they can learn it. Certainly, there are some naturally charismatic people – but we can break down what they do. You can model or emulate charismatic leaders – and if it’s possible for them, it’s possible for you. As you will see in my next blog article on ‘how to be charismatic’, you can become charismatic – by following some guidelines modelled from the behaviours of charismatic leaders.
2. To be a leader, you need to be charismatic
No. Not necessarily. It depends on the context, and your team or audience. To initiate a new project or turn a team or company around, maybe it helps to be an inspiring leader whom others will follow.
“But for business as usual, is it really necessary to have a flamboyant, inspirational leader in, say, the accounts department?” Gill Corkindale says.
Do you need to have charisma, at all? Do you even need to be a “leader”? Maybe it’s sufficient to be just a decent manager.
In fact, workers prefer their leaders to display “fairness, consistency, and respect rather than passion, creativity, and drama”.
3. Charisma is always good
There are many charismatic leaders who are, essentially, good. But charisma has had a bad press. Cult leaders are called ’charismatic’ – as if they cast a spell on people to do their will.
Even Weber recognised that Hitler and Mussolini had charisma – and that it could be used as a force for evil. Hero-worship and people believing that a leader can do no wrong is problematic. Charismatic leaders can also be seen as arrogant, egotistical, selfish or narcissistic, and overweening pride and self-confidence can hide incompetence. Jay Conger explores the dark side of leadership.
4. Charismatic leaders are more effective
They may give the impression that they are – especially if their self-confidence or arrogance presents this. However, a study reported in Too Much Charisma Can Make Leaders Look Less Effective by Vergauwe, Wille, Hofmans, Kaiser and De Fruyt found that: “as charisma increased, so did perceived effectiveness — but only up to a certain point. As charisma scores continued to increase beyond the 60th percentile, which is just above the average score relative to the general population of working adults, perceived effectiveness started to decline.”
And he says that “highly charismatic leaders are perceived to be less effective, not for interpersonal reasons like self-centeredness but for business-related reasons that specifically relate to a lack of operational leader behaviour.”
5. Charisma isn’t pushiness
In his article, The Dark Side of Charisma, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains the paradox that negative characteristics (like bullying or stepping on people) don’t appear to impair leadership performance. Far from it – in fact, people often progress because of such traits!
In fact, it does take confidence to have charisma – and to an extent, we still rely on people who step forward and make themselves visible, rather than actively seeking out potential and encouraging leadership talent based on performance .
But what if we employed a kinder kind of charisma? And how can we develop charisma?
In my next blog, I explore how to avoid the negative pitfalls of charisma – and how to be charismatic for the greater good.
If you would like to explore and develop more leadership confidence or charisma, or feel you could benefit from coaching, please get in touch.
If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.
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