If you’ve ever been in a room with someone and found yourself wanting to be around the person more, to hear more of what the individual was saying, thinking or doing, chances are you have been in the company of someone with charisma.
If you analyze your experience working with different leaders, surely you can pinpoint at least one, possibly more, leaders who were charismatic.
You may not be able to describe charisma precisely, but you likely know it when you see it. Charisma is a compelling charm or inviting persona that can inspire the commitment and devotion of others. It is a mysterious attraction that is challenging to quantify but highly difficult to resist.
The premise of charismatic leadership is to tap into a leader’s charisma. Charismatic leadership is a leadership style that utilizes a leader’s authenticity, communications prowess and inspiration to pull out the best in others. While some leaders believe the key to getting their teams to perform is by offering consistent feedback or putting them through one training after another, charismatic leaders believe that they are the key to improved performance. They believe that people respond well to their example and inspiration. No one does this better than leaders with charisma.
Charismatic leaders are like magnets – they draw people to them and bring out the best of those around them. Charismatic leaders have an inviting personality, a depth of wisdom and a command of language that makes their communication like a mouth-watering appetizer: It leaves diners wanting more.
Charismatic leadership is a tool in a leader’s arsenal. For some people, it is naturally the first tool they reach for. Those leaders may be charismatic without effort, and they tend to find themselves relying on this resource often. Others may have the ability to rise to the occasion and showcase charismatic leadership, though it may not be their first instinct. For other executives, charismatic leadership takes effort and intention.
Enough with the suspense already: What are the key traits of charismatic leadership?
Here are 5 key identifiers you’ll find in charismatic leadership:
1. Charismatic Leadership Is Uplifting
Charismatic leaders are uplifting. They can walk into a storm and spot the rainbow on the other side. They can sit amid chaos yet be completely assured that all will be well.
If a person is experiencing a whirlwind of emotions and engages with a charismatic leader, the individual will leave with a sense of calm. Charismatic leaders see the trouble, but they perceive opportunity. Their perspective is uplifting, and their optimism is contagious.
For instance, I was helping to manage a leadership transition at an organization that was planned yet stressful. The new leader inherited a new company and lots of unexpected challenges. There was tension throughout the senior staff, and that unease was palpable among the staff. Despite the challenges, the executive was filled with hope and communicated that hope consistently and persuasively. The minute the leader walked into the room and began to speak, staff members were able to see possibility.
2. Charismatic Leadership Is Marked by Communications Prowess
One of charismatic leaders’ most defining traits is oral communication. Charismatic leaders are gifted communicators. Their words are seasoned with grace, their message carefully tailored to the audience, and their selection of examples reflect a surgeon’s precision.
When I think of the charismatic leaders whom I’ve known in my lifetime, few are more defining than the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.
When I met Rev. Dr. Barber in spring 2016, I had already experienced my fair share of union protests and thought I knew everything I needed to know about organizing resistance movements; I’d already spent most of my life in the evangelical church, so I was quite familiar with meeting pastors and leaders who could rouse a sleeping audience to full-scale hysteria.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the leader I encountered. Rev. Dr. Barber had a theological perspective that welcomed all, not in a shallow “we shall all overcome” manner, but in a reflective manner. He was the first faith leader I had met who merged his faith with his religion. As a long-time communicator, I’d warn him that the place to deliver sermons was in the pulpit, not in front of editorial boards or in the presence of media. He talked about a moral fusion movement and about making decisions that reflected our deepest moral and constitutional values.
It’s been six years since that initial meeting, and his star has continued to rise. He’s published two books and will soon release a third. He has been recognized as a MacArthur Genius, and he’s a senior lecturer at Union Theological Seminary. He is invited to communities and into moral fights all over the world because of his vision, his work and his ability to relate to people from all walks of life.
By all intents and purposes, he embodies charismatic leadership.
3. Charismatic Leadership Is Courageous
Charismatic leaders are courageous. They make decisions that could be unpopular in the present but are necessary and even respected in the future.
For instance, screenwriter Adele Lim recently stepped away from work on the “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel due to a grotesque pay disparity. She was paid $100,000 for her work on the project while her white, male coworker was paid $800,000. This was a courageous yet difficult move.
First, many well-regarded and competent writers may never get the opportunity to write for a major series. Next, in disclosing the pay disparity, Lim not only turned down work, she acknowledged publicly what had to be privately painful; she was paid one-eighth of what her coworker was making.
There is a certain sense of shame when an individual discusses pain. Lim bucked the shame and courageously stood her ground. I am confident that Asian women, and all women, will benefit from the stance she took.
Another example along these lines is Oscar-winning actress and comedian Mo’Nique. When Mo’Nique urged a boycott of Netflix in 2018, she did so for what she termed gender and race discrimination. She says she was offered $500,000 for a comedy special, while Netflix allegedly offered actress Amy Schumer $13 million.
For people who have never come close to making half a million dollars, I imagine hearing that an actress turned down $500,000 and then asked her followers to boycott the streaming company may have been a bit much. The Root reported:
“For 24 months after the special premiered, Mo’Nique would not be able to crack any of the jokes she did in the Netflix special anywhere else, and when the 24 months were up – Netflix would have first dibs on those jokes, too. So basically, Netflix wanted her to take $500,000 to not be able to do what she is in the business of doing in the first place, and she was supposed to be OK with that?”
In a display of resolve and courage, Mo’Nique refused the offer. I can only imagine how difficult doing so may have been.
The truth is, when people talk about admirable values, courage always seems to be included in the list. One of the reasons this trait stands out is because it is difficult to consistently practice. Some people start out with the intention of being courageous and then succumb to the pressure of the public, their social media followers, friends, employer or others in positions of authority in their lives.
Charismatic leaders are courageous. They are bold, and they are willing to take principled positions, even to others’ chagrin.
4. Charismatic Leadership Is Original
Charismatic leaders are original. Rather than being a carbon copy of others, they break the mold. Because originality is so rare, it is refreshing when we see it.
Charismatic leaders’ originality often shines through because they are comfortable with who they are and believe that their natural self is their best self. They will not be convinced that they are not good enough, and their belief in themselves enables them to be original, which frees others to do the same. They have a unique way of communicating and an uncommon way of interpreting common occurrences.
5. Charismatic Leaders Are Likeable
I was speaking with a long-term political operative about why some candidates soar and others can barely get their feet off the ground. On paper, the candidates may be similar in terms of policy positions, background and accomplishments. Yet one of the candidates is incredibly popular, leaving audiences eating out of the individual’s hands, while the others struggle immensely to be noticed and taken seriously.
My friend told me that it comes down to likability. People want to elect someone whom they wish they could be like. They want to elect their role model or hero.
The same is true with charismatic leaders. Charismatic leaders are likeable: They reflect the aspirations of the people drawn to them. One incredibly important trait of charismatic leaders is likeability. At their core, they are likable.
For extroverts, these individuals are the people you’d like to go get a drink with. For introverts, the charismatic leaders are those whom you’d like to hang with if you could get over your desire to be alone.
This feature is so important that I have seldom met many charismatic leaders who aren’t likeable. Likability is the hand and charisma is the glow: The two naturally accompany one another.
What’s More a Charismatic Leader Needs?
While charismatic leadership is admirable, it is one tool in a leader’s toolbox. A charismatic leader without vision, a talented team of professionals with differing skills sets or decisiveness will be unable to lead a team through the company’s various life stages.
Importantly, if charismatic leadership isn’t accompanied by a commitment to ethics and practical knowledge, it can be very dangerous. A charismatic leader who lacks integrity can destroy people, companies and communities. Think about some of the world’s deepest sins – genocide of native people, slavery, eugenics of black and Latinx women, the mass murder of Jewish people – that were enabled by people who may have been charismatic but also devoid of moral center.
Quite simply, it is irresponsible to practice charisma in isolation of integrity, ethics and a genuine concern for other people.
Anyone can practice charismatic leadership. Leadership styles are a lot like muscles. Each of us uses some muscles more than others, and the muscles we use tend to be stronger.
Leadership theory and implementation is the same way. Based on our history, personality and career training, some leaders have spent more time exercising authoritative leadership styles, which may come naturally. This doesn’t mean that a leader can’t change, but changing happens with awareness, practice and intention.
In pulling all of this together, charismatic leadership is powerful. It is admirable too. Most people can work to become a more charismatic leader but should do so while being mindful of the other elements of leadership that help them be a more effective and well-rounded leader.
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