Leadership…What’s Charisma Got To Do With It?

Charisma. It seems to be something we admire in others and wish we had more of in ourselves.  It has drawing power.  When we see it in leaders, that compelling charm inspiring us to listen and follow and emulate, it is easy to envy the apparent ease with which they spin their particular magic.

Charismatic leaders paint the picture of the leader as hero.  These are people who suggest, by their very presence, they can take care of us; cure our ills; make change possible; maybe even be the saviour we have long sought.

In reality, no one can do that single-handedly.  Charisma may deliver the promise of change, growth, fulfillment and even wealth but on its own it will fail in the execution department.  That requires involvement from the rest of us, and a different kind of leadership.

Having said that, let’s face it; having charisma can be very handy.  Can we develop it?  I’m not sure. The word itself comes from the Greek meaning gift.  We know that each of us has gifts.  Not everyone has that particular one.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that what draws us to the charismatic type is not unlike what inspires us to follow leaders with less, um, pizzazz. So from that perspective I think it possible to develop, and use, some of the skills associated with the charismatic personality.

Specifically, here are three traits associated with the charismatic leader that come readily to mind when I think of other, perhaps less charming but equally successful leaders

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Self-awareness
  • Intense focus

These and other elements can indeed be developed even among those of us who have had what Jim Collins describes as a “charisma bypass” because, as he says, charisma is a personality trait and leadership is not about personality.  Here’s what else he has to say.

In my observation, charisma, on its own, tends to burn bright and then burn out. It has a dark side too.  Adolph Hitler had it.  So did The Reverend Jim Jones and Osama bin Laden. All three have had a disastrous impact on humankind. Masses of people, at one time or another, have viewed them with awe, often blindly doing their bidding.  These leaders are people who fed on the hope and despair of others to their own advantage and for their own glorification.  Charisma gave them that opportunity.

So if we strive for anything in leadership, let’s work to transform rather than transfix. Transformational leadership contains an element of charisma but is grounded in a set of high ideals, a solid work ethic and the expectation that all people have the capability to raise themselves up through their own hard work to reach higher ground.

Those who work to transform may share some charismatic traits but differ in these important areas:

They focus on a purpose and vision greater than themselves

Their work is not about them but about something beyond them that serves a greater good.

They engage others in making the vision their own

This comes from the belief that a shared purpose and vision makes the necessity for change clearer and the work it takes to achieve it, more meaningful.

They value learning, creativity and personal growth

Transformational leaders encourage people to challenge what has always been and to explore new possibilities with enthusiasm and without fear.

They carry less mystique and more transparency

To involve everyone in fulfilling the organizational purpose demands a kind of openness that doesn’t exist in an organization whose leader relies solely on the strength of his or her personality to lead.  Mystique may be kind of sexy but it gets in the way of getting the job done.

A lot has been written about charisma.  There are even some articles that attempt to tell you how to become charismatic.  For me, many of them miss the mark, like the one that offers 17 Tips on Becoming a Charismatic Leader. I particularly question the wisdom of number five on that list which states “ think of something pleasant so you appear to be sincere”. Hmmm.

The bottom line for me is that while we are not all favoured with charisma, we do each have the opportunity to develop drawing power by building leadership skill; being open to learning; focusing on something beyond ourselves and; mustering the courage to challenge and change things.

I think if we can do all that, who needs Charisma?

What do you think?



Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, Leadership Values, motivating & Inspiring

14 responses to “Leadership…What’s Charisma Got To Do With It?

  1. Great blog post! Very well said! I have been told by many that I have “charisma” and after reading your 3 characteristics of it, I have to agree that I have those characteristics. Now I need to make sure and follow the steps you laid out in the second half of your blog to maximize my potential. One thing is for certain, I do focus on a vision much greater then myself. I want to serve Jesus with my life and his purposes are far greater than anything that I can draw up or imagine!

    Thank you for a great post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi James~ Thanks for sharing your own experience and thoughts here. I’m so glad you found the post useful 🙂

  2. Well done, Gwyn. An excellent explanation of the difference between charismatic and visionary leadership. Love the quote from Jim Collins: charisma is a personality trait and leadership is not about personality. I agree that trying to develop charisma is focusing on the wrong thing. I do think that it is worthwhile to think about developing “presence” – which we do by being clear about who we are and what we stand for and staying focused and grounded in that.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jesse~ Having read your post on Charismatic vs Visionary leaders,http://seapointcenter.com/visionary-vs-charismatic-leaders/the thing that stands out for me is what is left when the leader leaves. Charismatic leaders whose focus is more about self than anything else will take it all with them. Those who work for a higher ideal will leave something on which others can build. Thank you for that and for your kind words.

  3. I loved this! So much can get lost within these larger than life personalities that people with charisma come with. Your observation, “charisma, on its own, tends to burn bright and then burn out.” stuck out for me as it sums up the risk. We have a phrase that I could not explain well here which clearly comes from that observation (it is in SeTswana hence not that straight forward to explain in English).

    Good points made so thanks for sharing your thoughts

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi thabo ~ I’d love to know the SeTwsana phrase you refer to! thank you for adding your voice here and for your kind words.

  4. terry

    “I like to think of myself as a facilitator. You find the right people. You get the right people on the bus. Get the right people on the right seats on the bus and you get out of their way. You provide them with the tools and resources they need to do their jobs, because these are the folks that are going to make a difference everyday,” Pascasio said. This is a quote from Robert Pascasio, who was named the new CEO of Hancock Medical Center, a local hospital. I like his analogy of the team on the bus. After last week’s unexpected “feedback” incident, I’m hoping to refocus and not get off track.
    As you said, it is up to the individual to decipher these messages, look for leadership opportunities, and not get caught up in the personality traits. I don’t like it when I pour sour milk on my cereal. However, Mom’s banana bread made with sour milk is a special treat, better served warmed during the holidays. A little charisma, or TLC, sweetens the routine bus rides.
    Here is the link to the story about the hospital CEO who talks about his mission and goals and reaching out to the community.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ Thanks for sharing the Story of Robert Pascasio. I liked what I heard, particularly when he said he had a lot of learning and listening to do. Going into a new situation is made easier when we use the things attached to the side of our heads more often than the thing that resides beneath our noses 🙂

  5. Gwyn – Kudos to you for raising a warning flag about charismatic leaders. Charisma knows no morality and is a trait that can be found among sociopaths who are among the most psychologically dangerous character types. They know how to read people and charm people, but it is done in service of using them, not to raise them up. Beware the charismatic leader.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Anne ~ Beware indeed. I think too that charismatic leaders tend to look for weaknesses in potential followers and use those weaknesses to gain leverage over them. That’s a pretty frightening prospect. For me, when somethings sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Thanks for expanding on the nature of charisma. It’s something we all need to watch out for.

  6. Alex Jones

    Charisma is a people’s belief in you. As you rightly say, the belief can lead people down self destructive paths.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Alex ~ What came up for me when I read your comment is: if charismatic leadership is about a people’s belief in you (as an individual), transformational leadership is about a people’s belief in your vision of the future; what you stand for and; how they can contribute. Being able to discern the difference is a skill we could perhaps all use more of.
      Thanks for that and for coming by!

  7. Pingback: Leadership…What’s Charisma Got To Do With It? | digitalNow | Scoop.it

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