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How to Be a Charismatic Leader – 3 Key Components

By Michael Lewis

charismaThroughout history, there have been individuals blessed with a unique, special quality. They stand apart from the rest of humanity, larger than life itself, as if endowed with supernatural or superhuman abilities with unlimited capability and potential. As natural leaders, they inspire those in their presence and stir deep emotions with their eloquence, appearance, and manner. They share the gift of charisma.

Not all leaders have that spell-binding, electric presence. Power doesn’t create it, but flows from it. Kennedy had charisma; Lyndon B. Johnson did not. Ronald Reagan had it, as well as Bill Clinton. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had it . Sports figures like Arnold Palmer and Muhammad Ali have it, as well as talk show host Oprah Winfrey and pianist Van Cliburn.

Modern psychologists call this ability the “X” factor, a quality that draws us to certain individuals who inspire, excite, and comfort us. Charisma is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it.

What Is Charisma?

Scientists have only recently begun to study charisma and other rare esoteric human characteristics such as exuberance, chutzpah, and grace, being difficult to define and requiring context in order to observe their effects. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines charisma as a “special magnetic charm or appeal,” while Dictionary.com says it is “a spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.”

Common synonyms for the quality include allure, drawing power, fascination, magnetism, and star quality. However you define it, charismatic people have the power to influence others by their words and actions.

Key Components of Charisma

Charisma seems to arise from the application of certain personal and social skills and appears to have more to do with image than innate abilities. Those skills can be learned and put into practice by anyone, and are based upon three key ideas:

1. Believe in Yourself

Kurt Vonnegut, the famous American author, wrote, “You are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be.” Confidence is a matter of perception, of believing in one’s self. Just as an actor transforms into a Roman Julius Caesar or a British Lord, you can become more self-confident by simply believing and acting as if you are the person you want to become.

Self-confidence enables you to do several things:

  • Be Realistic and Objective About Yourself and Others. By now, you’ve probably realized that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Failure didn’t kill you, and your successes didn’t forever satisfy you. Paradoxically, every time you fail, the more resilient you become. Conversely, for every mountain summit you’ve climbed, you found another higher crest waiting on the horizon. Other people are just like you, each of us making our own way through life with its peaks and valleys, looking for a little help and comfort along the way.
  • Accept Risks and Setbacks Without Giving Up. Everyone fails at some point or another. As Pecos Bill, the mythical Texas cowboy, said, “There ain’t a bronc that can’t be rode or a bronc-buster that can’t be throwed.” Self-confidence enables you to learn from your mistakes, adjust your actions, and get back in the saddle to ride a second and third time.
  • Do What You Think Is Right. It’s important to do what you think is right, even when you fear that the result will make you unpopular. Knowing that you can cope with whatever problems life throws at you is a strength that comes from constant and continuous “doing.” Experience breeds knowledge, and knowledge builds confidence. The more you confront your fears, the easier each confrontation becomes. You know more about yourself today and what you want from life; what others say or think about you is less important because you know yourself better than anyone else could ever know you.

charismatic leader

2. Be Sensitive to Others

Charisma is a social phenomenon that can only exist in the presence of two or more people. It is the result of one person expressing feelings that are positively perceived and interpreted by one or more receptive individuals, thereby affecting the receivers’ own emotions and moods. Sensitivity – the ability to correctly read others’ emotions – allows a leader to feel and understand those emotions and subsequently respond to and make a connection with his or her listeners or followers. President Bill Clinton, it has been said, had the amazing ability to “make a person feel like he or she was the only other person in the room,” even in the midst of a campaign crowd.

Learning to read people by interpreting their facial expressions, body language, and the tone and volume of their words is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Actors, for example, learn how to generate love, sympathy, and even hatred for their characters in the minds of an audience by imitating the expressions and actions of real people.

However, it is not about being false. As Meryl Streep, the multiple Oscar-winning actress, said, “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” Being in tune with others and your surroundings is an essential social skill for carrying yourself with poise and grace.

3. Express Your Thoughts With Clarity and Emotions

Leaders are those people who are able to get listeners to synchronize to their rhythm and reason through their use of language, timing, and repetition – communication techniques that can be learned and practiced. Researchers claim that charismatic people are larger than life with broad gestures and grand imagery, using more than twice as many metaphors as found in typical conversations. Metaphors are important because they help understanding; the best metaphors create a visual image in the minds of the listener that has emotional content, as well as explanation to which the hearer can relate.

Everyone can learn the skills of how to be a better communicator. Learning how to speak, when to speak, and the way to speak is a matter of education, training, and practice. Eloquence is an asset, but not a necessity. It is much more important to be sincere and understandable. Professional speakers often pretend that they are speaking to a single person in their audience, being sure that every idea, every phrase has meaning and resonance with their audience of one. This skill comes with practice.

Many people become skilled communicators by joining and actively participating in Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization where members learn by doing and consequently build their basic public speaking skills. There are no grades, diplomas, or instructors – other members give feedback to the member speakers – so there is little pressure while honing your skills. The ability to communicate effectively is essential in all relationships, whether familial, social, or professional, as is a foundation of charisma.

Final Word

Charisma enables you to be more influential in your community and to be part of something “bigger.” It gives you the ability to affect others and your environment to accomplish goals. As you acquire the abilities that make you respected and trusted, you will more easily reach your goals and bring happiness into the lives of those around you.

What do you think about charisma? Do you have it? Do you want it?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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