Charisma : Is it truly a trait ?

SelfHelpWith the plethora of self-help books on leadership, one aspect that has been laboriously rehashed over again albeit in different iterations is charisma. When taken at its literal meaning, charisma refers to a divinely conferred power [1]. 

Over the years, there had been a rise in terms of visibility of leaders who exhibit this trait on the global stage. In politics, Barack Obama enthralled America with his vision of an America where endless possibilities can become a reality through his mantra of “Yes, we can”. In technology, Steve Jobs is a visionary maverick given his ability to sell products that people did not previously think they need such as the IPad. Through the high visibility of charismatic leaders in various domains and given the pervasiveness of the Internet and social media, these leaders have attained an almost cult-like status.

Hence, it is with little surprise that in recent years, numerous ordinary people are reading countless tomes of self-help books on charisma, attending seminars or enrolling in courses in an effort to chase this elusive trait and become extraordinary.

However, given all matters that are amorphous and hard to quantify, there has been many confusion on this matter. The most common confusion is whether charisma can be trained or is it a trait? In class, we identified charisma as a trait. This holds true for many classical literature in management which looks at charisma from a trait approach whereby one is determined to possess charisma by exhibiting certain behaviours such as being visionary, energetic, unconventional and exemplary [2].

However, in recent years, numerous studies have shown an increased acceptance of another approach to charisma; the theatrical approach [3][4]. The theatrical approach examines charisma as a behaviour that can be enacted through attributions of charisma in both verbal and non-verbal behaviours. [5]

Hence, what these research suggests is that although charisma has been classically defined as a trait, it has also been identified as an ability that can be trained in ordinary people through the theatrical approach. Although the effectiveness of the theatrical approach has not yet been quantitatively proven, it does bear some credence to the philosophy instilled in self-help books and charisma workshops especially given the deluge of literature examining this approach.

all the world a stageWith that in mind, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, anyone trained in “charismatic leadership tactics” (CLTs) can become more influential, trustworthy and leader-like to their followers through nine verbal and three non-verbal behaviours that can be exhibited [6].

To be a charismatic speaker, it is important to help listeners understand, relate to and remember a message. A powerful way of achieving this is through using metaphors, similes, analogies and lastly, stories and anecdotes. Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of the metaphor. In his iconic speech, “I have a Dream”, he likened the U.S. Constitution to “a promissory note” guaranteeing the unalienable rights of liberty to all people but noted that America had instead given its black citizens “a bad check,” one that had come back marked “insufficient funds.” By attributing the current situation to that which is easily understood by many – receiving a bad check, the message is crystal clear and easy to retain.

Another key verbal CLT is contrast as it combine reason and passion by clarifying one’s position by juxtaposing it with the opposite, often to a dramatic effect. An example would be John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Besides that, using rhetorical devices encourages engagement from the audience and ensures that the interaction is a two-way street. Three-part lists are another effective persuasion tool because it distils any message into three key takeaways. The reason it is three is because most people can only remember three things which is enough to provide proof of pattern and give an impression of completeness.

The remaining three verbal CLTs are expressions of moral conviction which establishes your credibility by revealing the quality of your character to your listeners, setting high goals which helps demonstrate one’s passion and lastly due to the high goals set, it is important to convey confidence that the goals can be achieved.

nonverbalLastly, the three nonverbal cues—expressions of voice, body, and face—are also key to charisma. Although it does not come naturally to everyone, it represents the most culturally sensitive tactics. In fact, what is perceived as too much passion in certain Asian contexts might be perceived as too muted in a European one. Despite the challenges, it is important to be adept at understanding nonverbal cues so as to truly master the art of charisma.



[2] House, R. J., & Howell, J. M. 1992. Personality and charismatic leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 3: 81-108.

[3] Bass, B. M. 1988. Evolving perspectives on charismatic leadership. In J. A. Conger & R. N. Kanungo (Eds.), Charismatic leadership: The elusive factor in organizational effectiveness: 40-77. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Bass, B. M. 1990. Bass & Stogdill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research, & managerial applications (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press.

[5] Howell, J. M., & Frost, P. J. 1989. A laboratory study of charismatic leadership. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process, 43: 243-269.

[6] Learning Charisma by John Antonakis, Marika Fenley, and Sue Liechti. June 2012 . Harvard Business Review.

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