On some level, we’d probably all like to be more charismatic. But for leaders, enhancing one’s charisma comes with a paradox: The best way to do it isn’t by focusing on your own needs and desires. It’s by determining how you can best advance the larger needs of your company

In Understanding Charisma, the first installment in this series, I discussed a definition of charisma as a set of capabilities, or personal attributes. These include:

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

While it may seem that certain people are born with these characteristics, they can also be learned, refined, and improved.

There are four basic steps to becoming a more charismatic leader:

1) Decide which attributes of charisma you want to focus on, and why

2) Practice over time

3) Recognize that not all charisma is equally positive, and that leaders don’t always have to be charismatic

4) Practice over time. 

For each of us, some aspects of charisma will come more easily than others. I may be more inclined to speak in public; you may more readily engage others to work toward a common task. Consciously or not, we have both worked to strengthen these core attributes in any number of situations.

I am probably a relaxed public speaker because, years ago, I noticed that I wasn’t too nervous when I had to speak in front of others. I actively began to actively seek opportunities to present in front of groups.  Conversely, if I am less comfortable engaging others, I have to first want to learn how to do it better, understand the reason I want to be able to do it, and practice.

Charisma Starts with a Sense of Self

Your own sense of self is the key to genuine charisma.  What exactly do you want to be charismatic about, and why?  Do you agree with the traditional notion that charisma is only for “magic individuals,” or do you believe that you can be charismatic in your own right, in your own authentic way?

We have all encountered people who display charismatic qualities that rub us the wrong way. The classic example is the smooth salesperson who tries to sell us something we don’t want to buy. On the other hand, we may also have also encountered a leader who displays genuine charismatic abilities that resonate. Usually this leader uses his or her charisma to advance a larger issue, cause, or purpose.

The fact that we can react both very positively and very negatively to a charismatic person shows just how subjective charisma is. It’s not some magical gift that automatically enables the recipient to get his or her way. And it also shows us that in leadership, charisma is most genuine when it’s used in service of the organization’s shared purpose and the people in it.

Who are your models of charisma?  Are you aiming for your own charisma, or copying someone else’s?

In my coaching work, I’ve had clients struggle with charisma because they start by saying, in essence, “I need to do it the way I saw So-and-So do it.”  We have endless examples of “popular charisma” (celebrity CEOs, politicians, or people who are famous) that reinforce the traditional stereotypes about charisma. Beware these role models!  If you want fame, it requires “famous charisma.” If you want to be popular, it requires “politician’s charisma,” and so on. Neither of these are necessarily related to leadership.

Before you can try to improve your charisma, you better know exactly what you want. Only then can you try to grow your capabilities for the right reasons.  Leadership cannot be about being loved, popular, famous, or even note-worthy: true leadership is about the people following you. 

“Leadership Charisma” is about doing the work of leadership. It’s not about you.

A larger pitfall of trying to copy someone else’s style of charisma is that it reinforces the belief that you are the center of the charisma.  Although this may sound counterintuitive, it is the heart of “leadership charisma.”

We expect Jack Welch’s charismatic accomplishments will largely be about him – this is his job as a celebrity CEO.  We expect that Tom Cruise’s cinematic charisma will be about him – that’s the job of a movie star.  Too often, we see political leaders position themselves as a “solution,” with their charisma as a central qualification.

In leadership, we need an elevated view of charisma that focuses on the responsibility of the work of a leader and less on the leader personally.  This is not a new concept, and it is valuable in helping leaders reframe their need for charisma as something that is done for the good of the shared purpose of the organization, not merely to showcase their own capabilities.  A leader doesn’t need to show up at an all hands meeting simply to dazzle everyone in attendance. She needs to show up and be an effective communicator. That’s what organizations need-- not a big production with the leader as The Star.

By reframing the purpose of charisma, a leader is free to develop his or her core attributes, as well as to develop realistic levels of new attributes.  This makes practicing charisma much more useful.

Charismatic People Practice Charisma

If charisma is a set of attributes, they can be practiced.  Show me a charismatic person who commands attention when walking into a room, and I see someone who has worked (and worked!) at this ability over years.  We will talk more about practicing charisma in Part 3, but understand that commanding attention in this way starts very simply with wanting to be noticed by everyone in the room.

Is this commanding presence an element of charisma?  Absolutely. Is it necessary for leadership?  It depends.  Is it a quality essential for you as a leader?  Only you can answer this; and if you say “yes” and do not feel it is a core attribute, your work of developing it just became a much more involved endeavor.

Learning to grow charismatic attributes may be one of the harder leadership challenges.  Remember, charisma is not an all-or-nothing proposition – usually, just the right amount will make the difference.