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To be charismatic, you need to be open to others and listen closely. (Thinkstock)
To be charismatic, you need to be open to others and listen closely. (Thinkstock)

LEADERSHIP LAB

The power of a charismatic leader Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

The ancient Greeks, not sure how to pin down the notion that some people seemed magically capable of drawing others to them, called it a gift of the gods or a divinely conferred “gift of grace.” Max Weber, the German sociologist, reintroduced the term centuries later, using it to indicate a strong bond between leader and followers.

Today, charisma remains a fascinating topic. It’s like popularity: We all secretly want it, even as we downplay it for fear we can’t all have it. But maybe we can. Read on and decide for yourself if charisma helps you live a richer life with the potential to draw others magnetically to you or your cause.

Power confers charisma

Ask a group of people who they think has charisma and you’ll probably hear many of the same names: John F. Kennedy, Pierre Trudeau, Martin Luther King and Oprah Winfrey. We tend not to say, “Hey, my grocer is off-the-charts charismatic.”

That’s because power begets charisma, particularly if we subscribe to the same beliefs as the person with power. We typically assign charismatic status to those whose ideas align with our own. Ask NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s party faithful if they think Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is charismatic. Then wait for the groan. But ask former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s legions of fans if she’s charismatic and they’ll tell you, “Hell, yeah.”

One of the reasons power confers charisma is that it’s not easy to get. Power requires vision, grit, competence, credibility and a host of other traits we value as a society. Not surprising then that power and warmth are the two things we evaluate first when assessing other people.

How to boost your charisma

To enhance your charisma, gain some visibility. Take on responsibility and use whatever power it brings with integrity, warmth and wisdom. Power confers charisma, but there’s no guarantee your charisma will last.

Also, watch your body language and posture. Sit or stand up straight. Expand rather than contract your physical presence. And get grounded. At the core of powerful people there is stillness and an economy of movement. Bring yourself to the world as someone unbowed, who embodies power, even if you lack visibility or status. Your mind will follow your body’s cue.

Presence deepens charisma

Presence is a gracious gift you give to others. It’s been said of Bill Clinton that he makes anyone he meets feel like the most important person in the room. Presence is about the quality of your attention and listening. Your presence reveals warmth, acceptance and respect for others, which often comes back to you in positive, flattering ways.

To achieve this kind of charisma, work at softening your eye contact. If our eyes are narrowed and too focused, we seem to be judging others. Second, be a patient listener who doesn’t interrupt. Unhurried listening signals composure and confidence. Finally, recognize a smile is infectious. When listening wait for the right moment and smile warmly with your eyes and your mouth. What you’ll find is that the smile is not only returned, it comes with a letting down of the guard.

Purpose powers charisma

Most charismatic leaders have been connected to a purpose, cause or context that’s amplified their charisma. Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, for example, were eloquent, persuasive and passionate crusaders for their causes. They knew the power of language to strengthen resolve and stir others to action. They set high expectations and communicated in ways that both inspired confidence and helped people believe in themselves.

Charismatic people also express shared feelings, using metaphors and crafted messages that increase identification with a cause. Think John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in Berlin or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Apple’s Steve Job’s use of memorable comparisons and props has propelled his presentations into modern legend. Al Gore’s presentation role in the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, with its potent blend of purpose and persuasiveness, had a significant charisma-boosting effect on his image.

Improve your charisma with connection

Enhance your own charisma by connecting to something that matters, that moves you, that will resonate with others. Bring your full expressiveness and rhetorical powers to the ideas you convey. With some coaching these skills are easier to learn than most people realize. Make it easy for people to really get it, remember it, and want to achieve it. You’ll be considered more charismatic.

Being personable seals the deal

The first thing we notice about charismatic people is that they exude joy and warmth. They’re positive and optimistic with a genuine interest in and appreciation for people. They are accessible, tuned into humour, and quick to laugh. They bring a sense of goodwill and generosity of spirit to every interaction and tend to have a rich palette for life’s experiences and pleasures. We’re drawn to them, because their energy and confidence are contagious.

To enhance your charisma, put yourself out there. Smile warmly at people you pass. The goodwill will flood your body with oxytocin and serotonin, both feel-good chemicals. Treat people you meet as though you already like them, and you’ll find you do. Remember names. And know that others will remember more than anything else how it felt to engage with you.

Keep yourself in the right charismatic state of mind by developing a deep sense of gratitude, empathy and compassion, trusting that people are for the most part decent and well-meaning. As Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, suggests, “Don’t try to impress people. Let them impress you, and they will love you for it.”

The gift of grace is within us. Just remember to touch the heart to reach the mind. Others will follow.

Doug Mollenhauer (@dougmollenhauer) is a Vancouver-based speaker and leadership and communication coach. Reach him at doug@manifestolearning.com.

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