Charisma, and How to Get More of It

Do leaders need to be charismatic in order to be successful? I don't think so, but charisma certainly helps and I think it is possible for everyone to increase their "charisma quotient." Thus, those who want to lead would do well to pay a bit of attention to this quality.

The original Greek roots of the word charisma refer to a gift of grace given by the divine, and this may have led to the commonly held view that, when it comes to charisma, you either have it or you don't. Anecdotally, we all know people who seem to have that X-factor that draws attention and makes people want to follow; when they enter a room, it feels like two people have entered. We also know people who seem to completely lack that X-factor; when they enter a room it feels as if two people left. These experiences with other people can reinforce the "have it or not" view of charisma.

This view is unfortunate because it often stops people from trying to become more charismatic, which then hampers the fulfillment of one's leadership potential. The rest of this post explores how we can overcome this bias and work on increasing your charisma quotient.

As with leadership, there is probably no necessary and complete model of qualities, traits, or attributes related to charisma, but I have found a list that I think serves as a good starting point. According to New Scientist magazine,* psychologist Ronald Riggio "has identified six traits or skills that he believes are essential: emotional expressiveness, enthusiasm, eloquence, self-confidence, vision, and responsiveness to others." Charismatic people, according to Riggio, have a good balance of all of these qualities, and having too much of any of them probably reduces one's personal charisma. (Robin Williams, for example, may be entertaining on stage, but how much time would you really want to spend with someone that expressive?)

I find that it is best to take these qualities and work on them one at a time, starting with areas in which you are already pretty good and then working your way toward the ones in which you need the most improvement. Here are some exercises to get you started:

1. Emotional expressiveness. Now I admit that this will feel a little silly, so do it alone. Further, it helps if you take a little time to clearly identify the benefit of increasing emotional expressiveness; it is almost impossible to make any changes that we don't believe have a true benefit. Once convinced of the benefit of increasing emotional expressiveness, start paying attention to people who demonstrate the right amount of this quality--those who show their emotions on their faces and in their gestures in a positive way. Then, take a few minutes to watch yourself in the mirror and mimic some of their facial expressions. In other words, practice expressing your emotions. Yes, it feels weird. Get over it. Later, when you find yourself about to interact with someone, whether it is a meeting with an individual or a group, think about what emotional state you would like to convey--is it optimism, excitement, resolve, intensity? That emotional state, and act as if you were someone who conveyed that emotional well. It should be subtle, don't overdue it, but let yourself go a little more than you usually would. You'll notice the change, and others will as well.

2. Enthusiasm. Decide what you are excited about. Describe, to yourself at least, why you are excited about it. Ask why others should be excited about it. Take it upon yourself to get them excited about it too. The actions and expressions will come to you naturally if you are very clear in why you are excited and why others should share that enthusiasm. Clarity of purpose and the conviction that others should share that purpose are critical to demonstrating enthusiasm.

3. Eloquence. The best ideas in the world are of no value unless they are well-communicated to others. Improve your vocabulary. Take an interest in words; when you encounter a word you are not absolutely sure of, take my mothers advice and "Look it up! That's why we have a dictionary." (I like Merriam-Webster's online dictionary at Become a better writer and a better speaker. I highly recommend William Zinsser's "On Writing Well," and Roger Ailes's "You Are the Message." Buy these books today. Put them on your Kindle or iPad or Android. Read them. Start putting their lessons into use. Then read them again.

4. Self-confidence. True self-confidence only comes from a sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, most people are far more accomplished than they realize, so they are less confident than they should be. I often encourage clients to conduct an "accomplishments audit." Write down a list of the things you have done and accomplished in your career. Be extensive and objective; avoid false humility, don't bother listing the blunders (this is not a recommendation to ignore areas for improvement, but that is a different exercise...). Keep the list handy. Review it frequently. Your self-confidence will rise.

5. Vision. It's old advice, but people still avoid it: Take some time and define your vision for your team, your organization, yourself. Visions can--and should--evolve, but we meander when we don't have an explicit vision of where we are going and why (and meandering is not a sign of charisma). Visions need not be grand, but they need to be clear. Share your vision with others at every opportunity. If anyone on your team cannot describe your vision for the team or the organization, you need to work on this more.

6. Responsiveness to others. The satirist Fran Lebowitz once said, "Most people don't listen, they simply wait their turn to talk." Responsiveness to others starts with actually listening to other people rather than thinking about what you would like to say, and letting them know you are listening to them through the use of occasional brief paraphrases, such as "What I heard you say is...." (I used the word occasional on purpose; don't paraphrase everything everyone says, you will give them the creeps.) Think about what other people's needs are, and help them meet those needs.

*Young, Emma, "The X Factor," New Scientist, 23 June 2012.