There are a lot of important things that go in the leadership toolbox. Qualities like brilliant insight, superior strategic ability, and the willingness to stay in the trenches with your team will all earn trust and respect.
Some people, however, seem to effortlessly command attention – they have natural star power that makes people want to pay attention and follow their lead.
Charisma can make the difference between being heard and being ignored, and it’s an important quality that can save time, energy, and frustration. It’s a quality that many salespeople and executives seek. I believe it’s also an essential component of effective communication.
In “The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master The Art and Science of Personal Magnetism”, Olivia Fox Cabane promises that charisma is not an innate quality. Rather, it is something that can be learned. She cites the example of Marilyn Monroe, who could switch between her everyday Norma Jean Baker self and a million-watt superstar right in the middle of the street. She points out that Steve Jobs was a lacklustre speaker until the mid 80’s when he started manifesting his almost messianic quality.
Olivia Fox Cabane is an executive coach to dozens of Fortune 500 companies and the French government. She has lectured at Stanford, MIT, Yale and Harvard, and has written for Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and more. She is living proof that her techniques work: she was her own first client. An awkward and socially unaware teen, she dived into neurological and behavioural research in order to learn how to be likable. Over time, she began to teach others and now earns astronomical fees for her coaching sessions.
“The Charisma Myth” makes for inspiring reading, but not because she offers a golden ticket to effortlessly switching on personal magnetism. Learning charismatic behaviour takes dedication and time. What was most impressive to me was the amount of thought Fox Cabane has clearly put into a very slippery topic.
Here’s what I mean.
The 3 Components of Charisma
When we say “charisma”, what are we actually talking about? Fox Cabane states that charisma is made up of three carefully balanced factors:
- Presence: total focus on the moment you’re in and on the person you’re listening to. Too little and people feel ignored, but too much can make people feel like they’re being interrogated.
- Power: perceived influence or authority. Too little and you seem subservient and people-pleasing, too much and you’re arrogant or even frightening.
- Warmth: sincere kindness and good will towards other people. Too little and you’re callous, but too much and you’re desperate.
See? Not so simple. And it gets more interesting.
The Types of Charisma
People are complex, and charisma has many flavours.
- Focus Charisma: The introvert’s charisma, it’s the ability to be so utterly present you make people feel that there’s no one else in the world and that they are absolutely listened to and understood. This is something people have said about Presidents Obama and Clinton.
- Visionary Charisma: This is the famous Steve Jobs “reality distortion field” that makes people feel like anything is possible. This requires transcendent confidence, but will inspire people to overcome the impossible.
- Kindness Charisma: This is the warmth of the sun shining from your heart, epitomized by the Dalai Lama. This ability to pull the thorn from the lion’s paw can make difficult people calm down and start really talking.
- Authority Charisma: This is the power to move heaven and earth, and it’s a great way to get fast compliance in a crisis. Winston Churchill used this kind of charisma to help get Britain through the Blitz.
The right charisma for you will depend on your personality, the situation, and especially what kind of person you’re dealing with and what they need. One of the most important lessons that Fox Cabane teaches is that charisma is not about you and what you want, it’s about them.
When considering what type of charisma to use, you need to choose wisely. Will projecting monumental power and authority help you when delivering constructive criticism? Not if you want the person to be comfortable with the feedback and work to improve. Visionary charisma won’t help when dealing with someone who is being difficult because they feel ignored. Kindness charisma may not be the right choice when team morale needs to be amped up. Each style has its benefits and downsides.
Be warned, developing personal magnetism is no quick and easy “fake it till you make it” weekend project. People are smart, and can tell a phoney when they see one. The key is authenticity. Oprah Winfrey, as Fox Cabane points out, only became successful once she “stopped trying to be the next Diane Sawyer and became the best Oprah she could be”.
So How Do You Get “It”, Anyways?
The answer lies in the placebo effect. Numerous studies have shown that you can use body language, vocal delivery and posture exercises to put yourself in the right mental state to actually release hormones that lead to a charismatic mindset and behaviour. It takes effort and practice, however, and Olivia Fox Cabane provides exercises to develop the physical, mental and emotional skills that build up charisma over time. These exercises follow a few themes:
- Get comfortable with discomfort. When you feel awkward or unsettled physically or emotionally, set those feelings aside. Take in the whole scene, not just whatever is bothering you. Why? If you are uncomfortable, people may think they are the cause of your distress, and react defensively.
- Use your body to change your mind. Smiling, standing confidently, and allowing yourself to spread out and take up more room can help you feel better. When you’re relaxed and confident, people will enjoy being around you more.
- Use your mind to change your body. Use visualization techniques to get yourself into the right frame of mind before presentations and important meetings.
There are dozens of exercises to help you work on the traits you find don’t come naturally. In a way, it’s going to acting school to learn how to be more like yourself.
Once you’ve developed your personal magnetism, it can help you give astounding presentations, deal with difficult people, and give others the courage to persevere during crises. Olivia Fox Cabane devotes entire chapters to handling these specific situations. For the business owner or executive there’s a goldmine of strategies in this book, and it’s well worth reading.
The author also includes a chapter about the downsides of charisma, and some strategies to cope with resentment and the other hazards that come with the territory. One executive she worked with had to learn how to dial his charisma down. His team was becoming so lost in hero worship that they stopped questioning him, even when they should.
With Power Comes Responsibility
Some may think that charisma is about the ability to manipulate people, and it’s possible there’s some truth to that. Fox Cabane says that charisma is a power that can be used or misused, and must be balanced with a strong sense of ethics.
For most of us, I think working on how we present ourselves to people is more about becoming a better communicator, and improving the relationships we have with our teammates and our clients. There’s a lot riding on our ability to communicate effectively, and the hazards of accidental miscommunication are many.
In the end, charisma isn’t leadership. But it helps.
More Resources On Body Language, Charisma and Getting Your Mojo Workin’:
- Olivia Fox Cabane’s Stanford Seminar
- Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”
- Lessons from the dark side: Laurence Rees’ lecture “The Charisma of Adolf Hitler”