by Scott Edinger
Harvard Business Review
What makes a leader inspiring? By far, the most common answer I hear from the thousands of leaders I’ve spoken with on the topic is “charisma.”
And who would argue? When they hear that answer, people typically nod knowingly; we all seem to recognize the power of charisma to motivate. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, recently wrote on this siteabout its importance.The sociologist Max Weber described it as being endowed with supernatural, superhuman, and exceptional powers.
As a practical matter though, what does one do with this information? The advice, “Go be charismatic” is about as useful as “Go be inspiring.” So what does it actually mean to be charismatic as a leader? From my experience observing and coaching hundreds of leaders, and analyzing data on thousands more, here is what I’d suggest is the constellation of qualities that constitutes charismatic leadership.
Charismatic people focus on you, not themselves. Leadership effectiveness is contextual — what works for one group doesn’t necessarily work for another. So in order to be charismatic you simply have to understand and relate to others. And the more you relate on a human level the better. Regardless of your politics it is hard to argue that Bill Clinton is nothing if not charismatic. Even people who have had the briefest of encounters with him come away feeling like they were the most important person in the room.
They tend to be extraverts. I recognize that this will be an unpopular conclusion with the introverts reading this, but the fact is charismatic leaders are people who put themselves out there. They actively seek out and engage others. They tend to be upbeat and make us feel that way, too. We all know people who can “light up a room.” This is not to say that introverts can’t be charismatic. But they do have to work harder at it, since many find social situations draining, rather than energizing.
Like all good leaders, charismatic leaders are skilled communicators. Communication is critical to any kind of management of course, but charismatic leaders are particularly expressive in their verbal communication. They are skilled and entertaining conversationalists. They tell stories. They use concrete examples. They talk about their feelings. They look for ways to invoke common ground in an audience. These skills come naturally to many, but they can certainly be learned, and improved.
They feel your pain, really. You can be good at sizing people up, engaging with them, paying attention to them, and communicating with them and still not be charismatic. Beyond all of these skills, truly charismatic leaders possess that little something extra. Empathy. They genuinely care — and people can tell. It’s what Aristotle called ethos, as it relates to your disposition or character. The most effective leaders I’ve worked with display charisma by making a genuine emotional connection forged by words and deeds that demonstrate that they understand — and really have — your best interests at heart.
The word charisma comes from the word Greek charis, meaning gift or grace. But it’s not so much a grace we’re born with as a skill that can be cultivated and, ultimately, a gift to be shared with others.