Charisma is at once one of the most debatable, misunderstood, and important terms in leadership. To complicate matters, the definitions and applications of charisma are thousands of years old and remain shrouded in ancient assumptions and deeply ingrained patterns of social psychology.  These are not patterns we can overcome easily; and yet the mythology of charisma in leadership must be challenged in order for our leadership to become healthy, adaptable, and sustainable.

Let’s start by understanding exactly what charisma is.  In leadership, charisma can be viewed as a set of capabilities, or personal attributes, such as:

  • the ability to project confidence
  • an inner sense of purpose
  • the capacity to engage others
  • skill in articulating ideas, vision, and goals

Like any other capabilities, these can be learned and improved upon. In the second part of this series, we’ll discuss how that can be accomplished.

But the intangible characteristics of charisma are what make it so powerful. While a modern definition of charisma starts with the characteristics listed above, charisma is a word whose ancient associations are almost unshakeable. That’s just one reason that defining charisma, never mind developing it, is so difficult. Here’s how the meaning of the word has evolved:

1.  The Greek word kharis refers to grace and kindness, with the ancient mythological figure Charis representing the very human qualities of charm, beauty, and creativity.  Grace encompasses esteem, regard, virtue, elegance, and gratitude.  This oldest meaning of the word charisma may be the most useful if we are to get past the idea of leaders--and executives--as divine figures.

2.  Historically, the word charisma was associated with supernatural elements. This is where modern leaders get into trouble. Charisma, then, is seen as a gift or talent from heaven that gives an individual the ability and the authority to rule others. This is the definition claimed by politicians who say they have a divine mandate, by religious leaders who express a divine calling, and by those who believe that leaders are born with a genetic predisposition to lead. By extension, these beliefs compel the rest of us to be led with little objection, because the leaders know best.

3.  The current understanding of charisma signifies an individual with personal appeal, magnetism, charm, confidence, and the ability to draw people into a vision or around a purpose. We say someone is charismatic if they are persuasive public speakers, especially if they’re promoting a larger vision. Charisma is sometimes described as “leadership presence,” or the way in which a leader physically conducts himself or herself to attract attention.

A very useful tool in the effort to understand and cultivate charisma is “grace.” It is a word and approach that is strong enough to re-define the role of charisma in leadership, and to support the frameworks of organizational health that seek to remove the leader from his or her traditional pedestal. We’ll see just how important it is in part 2 of this series, when we discuss ways to develop one’s own personal charisma.