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Is Charisma a Learned Leadership Skill?
The term “charisma” has always had a mystique about it. The word began as a Latinized form of the Greek “kharisma,” which means “favor,” or “divine gift.” When we see someone who is charismatic, we feel almost as if their authority was divinely bestowed. Researchers have unpacked the concept of charisma and broken it down to show that rather than being a gift received from a higher power, charisma is actually a skill that can be taught and honed. In fact, many leadership coaching clients work on the very characteristics that help them come across as charismatic. Charisma is conveyed as a person’s ability to unite and motivate in a positive manner. It is what makes troops follow outstanding military leaders into battle and what convinces the reluctant student that he or she can indeed learn differential calculus. Here is what professionals in general and leadership coaching clients in particular should understand about charisma.
The Myth of Charisma Being Inborn
Some people really do have us believe that their charisma is an inborn trait, fully formed from day one. And while some do grasp elements of charismatic communication more easily than others, that doesn’t mean there’s a fixed amount of charisma in the world, and only so many people can have it. In fact, you do not have to innately have great “people skills,” a strong personality, or Hollywood looks to have charisma. It can be learned and developed like any other skill, but first, you must believe that you are capable of being charismatic and deserving of the rewards that it can bring.
Building a Foundation with Integrity and Congruence
What separates the charlatan from the genuinely charismatic person? Integrity. Charisma begins with a foundation of words, actions, and beliefs that are in alignment. It does not demand perfection or rule out change, because after all, people’s words, actions, and beliefs change genuinely as they continue to grow as humans. Putting it succinctly, charisma is based on walking the talk. If you don’t back up your words with actions, or if your actions are inspired by “beliefs” that you only pretend to have out of convenience or utility, then you won’t have charisma. You might be able to accomplish some ends with this combination, but your fundamental dishonesty will eventually show.
Communicating Congruence Effectively
For those who have basic congruity of words, actions, and beliefs, communicating that integrity requires practice and attention to details. Here are some of the key tactics used by people with charisma, according to a study of the concept by researchers from the University Lausanne Business School in Switzerland:
- Using strong metaphors
- Relating coherent narratives
- Showing moral conviction
- Tapping into collective sentiment
- Having high expectations for one’s self and others
- Projecting confidence
- Using positive body language and facial expressions
- Developing a non-monotone voice
Every one of these tactics can be learned by anyone with the desire and commitment to doing so.
Like Any Skill, Charisma Must Be Practiced
Suppose you have enough “muscle memory” to remember how to play the clarinet you played all through middle school and high school band. Does that mean you can pick up the instrument after years or decades and play it skillfully? No, because you will have to redevelop your embouchure, practice fingerings, and probably go back to a softer reed at first. Likewise, charisma is a skill that will rust and deteriorate if you don’t practice it.
Leadership coaching is often called upon to address the very tactics that project charisma. It may involve evaluating video footage of the leader participating in a hard-hitting mock television interview, receiving input on strengths and weaknesses from others, and practicing the skills that project charisma repeatedly, until they become second nature. In my many years in leadership coaching, I have learned that there are some things that cannot be taught. For example, trying to make a fundamentally dishonest person into an honest person is well beyond the scope of leadership coaching. But for the person who is committed to improvement and to putting new and developed skills to work, essentially everything that adds up to a charismatic presence can be taught and coached until it becomes automatic.