Developing Your Charisma

Several years ago, I left an executive position under fire. This was a difficult personal experience for me; I had never really failed at anything before. I thought I was pretty adept at weathering political storms, but this situation caught me entirely off guard. During the four months in which I sought new employment, I began to lose perspective and my positive view of humanity.

That all changed when I applied for and secured a position working for an executive that I had admired from afar, but with whom I had had little first hand experience. This executive was Utah's former Governor and former US Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt. For me, working for Governor Leavitt was at once challenging and inspiring. I was captivated by his philosophy of government and governance, and by his innate ability to be led by and to be true to principles and values. He embodied for me the traits I have since come to recognize as charisma.

While Mike Leavitt was neither the first nor the last leader who has impressed me with his charisma, he is one whom I observed closely during the time I was on his staff and have followed closely since then. Ever since that first experience, I have wanted to emulate his style, his commitment to values and his uncanny ability to inspire and motivate others. While my sphere is significantly more limited than his, I have tried to be as committed, as optimistic and as principled in my sphere as he is in his.

What is Charisma?

I suspect that all of us know what charisma is, but may have difficulty defining it adequately. Generally, we tend to define charisma in terms of the people who have it. While Mike Leavitt defines charisma for me, many others may define it by recalling John Kennedy , Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , or Mahatma Gandhi.

Dr. Tony Alessandra defines charisma as "the ability to influence others positively by connecting with them physically, emotionally, and intellectually." He also quotes Harvard anthropologist Charles Lindholm's definition: "Charisma is, above all, a relationship, a mutual mingling of the inner selves of leader and follower."

Can Charisma Be Learned?

I believe that charisma can be developed; that it is not a genetic trait. To some extent, much of the profession of coaching is based on the premise that effective leadership skills, including charisma, can be developed in people. The expression, "Leaders are made, not born" is a mantra of the coaching profession. If in fact a person can become more charismatic, what are the foundational steps to achieving personal charisma?

The three dimensions cited by Dr. Alessandra seem to provide a useful framework: physical, emotional and intellectual. Let's explore some possibilities of skills to learn and develop within each of these three areas.

Physical. Some people simply have a commanding presence. I recently attended a seminar which was led by a trainer who was 6'8" tall and weighed 280 pounds. He clearly had a commanding presence, which contributed something to his charisma. Now, I can't grow seven inches onto my stature (with enough high fat foods, I could probably get to 280 pounds, however!), but I can improve my physical skills to enhance my charisma. Physical ideas might include:

  • Improving my overall health and vitality
  • Enhancing my ability to look people in the eye
  • Developing a firm yet non-bone-crushing handshake
  • Investing in a better tailored wardrobe for business activities
  • Carrying myself better–holding my head erect (not looking at my feet all the time!)
  • Learning to smile more

Emotional. The connection we tend to most identify with charismatic leaders is the emotional. I never saw the real Mahatma Gandhi, but his words and story have inspired me for years. His actions were persuasive. Ways I can connect emotionally to others in a more charismatic fashion might include:

  • Enhancing my oral communication skills, including persuasion and public speaking
  • Enhancing my ability to communicate effectively in writing
  • Focusing more on those with whom I communicate and less on myself
  • Learning to listen better
  • Being more aware of body space and body language
  • Work on being more optimistic
  • Improve my relationships with a few close friends (including my spouse or significant other)

Intellectual. Charismatic leaders also engage the minds of their followers. Their ideas and ideals tend to raise our vision above the mundane. We have a sense that while charismatic leaders are not always the smartest among us, they think deeply about things and communicate those ideas and thoughts in meaningful ways. To enhance my intellectual prowess I might consider:

  • Reading widely and deeply (don't just stuff those journals in my bottom desk drawer!)
  • Taking a class in a subject I don't know enough about
  • Continuing my professional development
  • Learning about personality types
  • Develop a better vocabulary
  • Volunteer to teach or train others in my field of expertise

Charisma is an important trait for a leader in any organization. By focusing on the three key dimensions of charismatic leadership, we can enhance our charisma and use it to benefit ourselves, our organizations, our families and our communities.