What Is Leadership Charisma and How Can You Develop Yours?

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Who do you picture when you hear the term “leadership charisma”?

Geometric Group of birds.I can’t help it—my mind automatically goes to Mel Gibson and his freedom speech in Braveheart. Before a disenchanted, scruffy, outnumbered Scottish army he implores them to fight. “Tell our enemies they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” (It works best if your face is blue and you’re on a horse.) Here’s the clip.

What is leadership charisma?

Leadership charisma is that special something that inspires others, that changes behavior and gets people to do something they’ve maybe never considered doing. Charismatic people appear confident and engaging and are usually good at articulating ideas, vision and goals.

GettyImages-454974853crop.jpgThe best description of leadership charisma I’ve come across is from hbr.org, calling it the shine on the apple, but not the apple itself. “The shine often comes from what people want to see; it is a reflection of their own selves.” The substance of the leader is the apple itself.

Does a leader have to have charisma to be successful?

No. A good solid apple can get the job done, and done well. Charisma just makes it easier, opening doors, making people more receptive to your ideas or even getting others to desire the same things you do. “Let us fight those pesky English although we’re outnumbered 17 to 1, because we want to be free.”

Conversely, we’ve all bitten into a shiny apple that was bad inside—reminding us that substance definitely carries more weight than charisma. (Can you tell I really love this apple analogy?)

Another caution from Brian Evje for inc.com, too much of a good thing can become unhelpful. “Leaders who concentrate on constantly influencing others, for instance, may reduce the motivation and ability of their people to stake out their own opinions.”

How can you become a more charismatic boss?

Think you could serve your organization better if you were more charismatic? You’re in luck! The qualities that make someone charismatic can be learned, suggests Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D. for psychologytoday.com. Richard Arvey’s 2012 twin studies put leadership abilities at 76% learned and 24% innate.

Before beginning, you need to have a good understanding and acceptance of yourself. Take time to consider who you are as a leader. Evje suggests you have to be comfortable in your own skin. Ask yourself: What drives me? What are my personal values? Liking who you are and what you stand for is a necessary first step to projecting confidence and self-assurance.

Also consider your interactions with other people. Little things like a lack of attentiveness when people are talking to you, the wrong handshake, poor eye contact and ending sentences on high pitches weaken your interactions and image.

Then practice.

GettyImages-615266796cropWhen safe opportunities come up for you to try out the new skills you want to develop, do it. Want to become better at interacting with people? Learn to pause thoughtfully before answering questions. Practice making eye contact and taking the shrillness out of your voice … with your friends first. Pay attention to how charismatic people you know are interacting.

Want to become better at speaking to an audience? Stand up at a birthday party and say a few kind things about the guest of honor. Join clubs or groups that put you in this situation more often. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That only happens with practice.

Can charisma go off the rails?

GettyImages-472675690cropYes. Most of us like bold, confident people. They get our attention. And we (often incorrectly) assume they may know more than we do. Heaping this attention on inexperienced, unprepared leaders can lead to arrogance and inflated egos. Strong, charismatic leaders are confident … but humble.


Leadership charisma is powerful. But remember that true leadership charisma isn’t self-serving. It doesn’t scream “Hey, look at me.” It’s quiet confidence … self-acceptance … and small things done with the right intentions.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.