People with charisma have more power than average. That's because there is something about them that makes others want to follow them. That gives charismatic people huge advantages when it comes to leading organizations.

For example, charismatic people have an easier time recruiting talented employees and winning over customers and investors. Yet boards should be careful about the risks of appointing charismatic people into leadership positions -- namely they need to make sure that they are ethical and have enough intellectual humility to recognize their weaknesses.

Despite those risks, being charismatic sounds like something that would help leaders -- including company founders. I had always believed that you either were born with charisma or would never have it. However, a New York Times article changed my mind -- helping to define what charisma is, why it works, and how you can train yourself to become charismatic.

There seems to be agreement about two things regarding charisma. First, charismatic people are great at attracting other people to them and second, the things that make a person charismatic are difficult to pin down -- though one expert says it's all about verbal and non-verbal signaling that draws others to a charismatic person instinctively, according to the Times.

I best understand charisma as resting on three pillars. The Times notes that these include: 

  • Presence means focusing all your attention on the person you are talking with. The challenge here is to improve your ability to refocus when external sounds or internal thoughts distract you. 
  • Power is about removing the feeling that you do not deserve the position you've achieved and to convince yourself that "your skills and passions are valuable and interesting to others;" and
  • Warmth means signaling kindness and acceptance. A way to practice warmth is to imagine a person for whom you feel "great warmth and affection and then focus on what you enjoy most about your shared interactions." 

Here are three ways to teach yourself how to be charismatic.

1. Learn how to tell stories.

One thing I've learned as a college teacher is that showing students pictures of complex concepts does not register as well as telling good stories. That's why I try to pepper my classes, cases, and books with stories that I like to tell. Indeed, each semester I enjoy telling my favorite stories to a fresh class of students.

It turns out that charismatic people are good at telling stories. But what makes for a good storyteller? According to the Times, great storytellers excel at paraphrasing action and using "facial gestures, energetic body language and vocal inflections to frame key points." What's more they tell stories with moral conviction, they reflect how the group feels, and they ask questions to engage listeners.

2. Make others feel like they are the most important people in the room.

Charismatic people have great presence. They block out distractions and make people feel "as if time had stopped and they were all that mattered. They make people feel better about themselves, which leads them to return for future interactions," according to the Times.

Bill Clinton is great at this. I know from personal experience -- 16 years ago I was in the audience at a hotel in Hong Kong where he gave a presentation to about 1,700 people. I still remember his topic -- how economic integration among countries can make the world safer.

More important than that, I felt as though Clinton was tuning into my thoughts and those of all the other audience members. It was a powerful feeling that sprang from what seemed to me his complete concentration on the audience and the message he was delivering. 

3. Practice and improve both skills.

I am basically a shy, introverted person who spends a considerable amount of time trying to keep rooms of 40 or more people engaged for 90 or more minutes at a time. When I started teaching, I thought it would take me 10 years to get good at this.

So I agree that practice will help you climb the "charisma skill tree." The Times suggests you start at home, by actively participating in conversations rather than saddling yourself with self-doubt. After that, accept social invitations, join a local Toastmasters public speaking group, and keep looking "for ways to show off your strengths while leveling up your weaknesses."

Do these three things soon and you will be on your way to being a more effective leader.

Published on: Aug 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.