The Charismatic Leader

Charisma, from the Greek, is often thought of as a magical or divine quality that only a lucky few are born with.  However, given the interest in effective leadership, many are making studies to discover what actually is charisma – with some remarkable findings.

In a recent Scientific Mind article, “In Search of Charisma” by Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher they summarise a few of the latest studies.  Some of the key findings include:

  1. It is the followers who attribute the “charisma” on to their leaders
  2. That “followership” is influenced as much, if not more so, by “inclusive language” as it is by any other quality or behaviour.  ie, do they speak as if they are “one of us”?
  3. That you can construct yourself to be seen as one of the group.  And this requires first that you listen, then reflect that to the group, then realise any changes or steps forward.

Take Franklin Roosevelt: Being wheelchair bound, he was not typical of the leader stereotypes in western culture, see Gladwell’s Blink for more insights on assumptions about leadership.  While these stereotypes are powerfully influential, FDR used his difference to his advantage by aligning his perseverance  through struggle with the needs of the people.  Likewise, Kennedy his physical ailments to align himself with youth and renewal.  Our leader’s need to reflect the stories and myths of the people they seek to serve.

So how can we use this?

First, we can look at how we are, and how we are not, like the group.  To do this well, we can consider a multitude of dimensions, such as, physicality, outlook, means of expression, language use, etc. Gathering this information by observing and noting what the group appreciates, we can then choose which qualities we may want to amplify that are like the group.

Even if we are atypical of the group, we can still appear charismatic by the language that we use.  Typically, “We” rather than “I” scores more points with our audience, as do stories that unfold about our vision, rather than dogmatic lecturing about what we need to do.

To do this well, we must also understand the story or the guiding myths of our groups – which is why people who announce they are natural leaders – and therefore should have power bestowed upon them – usually fail to win the hearts and minds of “their” groups – see The Apprentice for examples in abundance!

We need to understand our audience first, and then reflect what we understand.  In short, we must be seen to be both “of the group” and “for the group”, and if we succeed in doing something for the group, then our charismatic qualities will increase.

Below is just one snap-shot of  how a leader’s charisma is heavily influenced by their company’s performance, that is, the audience make attributes based on correlated stories rather than certainties about one’s “charisma.”

In Search of Charisma

For more, go to this link with summary below

  1. Charisma was traditionally thought to be an attribute of the leader, but it is primarily an attribution made by followers.
  2. Charisma centers on the capacity for a leader to be seen by followers as advancing group interests. Its spell can be broken if leaders are discovered to be acting for themselves or for an opposing group.
  3. Charismatic leaders cultivate narratives in which their sense of self comes to be seen by followers as emblematic of their shared group identity.
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2 comments

  1. Great stuff. Charisma being one element of why someone should be positively impacted by their leader? What about the ‘expert’ leader?, the ‘inspirational’ leader, the ‘social’ leader, the ‘principled’ leader, the ‘visionary’ leader….or are these all subsets of being charismatic? or as you say being labelled by the followers as charismatic?

    • Hi Steve,
      It is, as always, about perception right! (In this case – others’ perceptions of leaders.) I would say that charisma, in this context, is the je ne c’est quoi quality of leadership that summarises why people are “attracted” to their leaders. These could be their expertise, vision, sociablity etc, but these may be more tangible qualities that their audiences can easily recognise/measure. It doesn’t however talk about how the “followers” are “positively impacted”; which could be a very interesting study in and of itself.

      For me, its another piece in the puzzle of how/if we can train people (including ourselves) to be better leaders.

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