A guest contribution of Jennifer Withelm, author of the book new publication to the topic Charismakompetenz and speaker with the Feminess Business congress.
Divas like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly fire people’s imagination. The myth that charisma is a gift from God persists. According to the origin of the word, this is also true. Doubters say, “You either have it or you don’t” – but very few researchers still share this opinion in the 21st century. Charisma is instead the result of self-reflection and a lengthy process. Personalities become charismatic at the right time in the right place at the peak of their charisma. They were not as fascinating as an infant as they are at this moment, and most of the time they cannot sustain their charismatic effect until the end of their lives. The stars who died at an early age, such as Janis Joplin or Lady Diana, have it “good,” as cruel as that may sound. Their myth at least keeps them alive in the hearts of their fans.
The myth makes artists fascinating, especially when they also died young under tragic circumstances. But that is something completely different from the charisma of superior managers. A manic-depressive womanizer like James Dean would not have established himself as CEO, nor would the always drunk Amy Winehouse.
Journalists and scientists argue to this day about the answer to the question: What is the core of charisma? Is it body language or rhetorical talent? Attractiveness? Each of them is right. Charisma cannot be equated with just one character trait, it is the sum of several personality traits. All these five pillars can be trained and whoever manages to do this in a balanced ratio has a good chance of building up a magical aura in the long term.
Charisma can be learned. It is not so much a gift from God as a skill that people can acquire – like a language, an instrument, or a sport. The charisma that people are aware of is thus a “charisma competence” analogous to linguistic, creative or social competence. Some people have God-given charisma. Through exemplary upbringing, the right environment and individual inclinations, natural talents can have a stunning charisma without ever having given a thought to their own impact. But only a few learn charisma intuitively, like their own mother tongue. Most people have to work on themselves continuously to achieve charisma, as if they were learning a complex foreign language.
Five personality domains appear repeatedly in the relevant literature, but without being directly related to each other. For one set of authors, integrity and emotionality are the keys to building trust and thus the key to developing charisma. Others rate extraversion, empathy, and conscientiousness as more important. Yet everything plays together: As soon as only one of these five personality areas is violated by a charismatic person, the supposed gift of God wobbles on its foundation. People can be charismatic even if they have only “trained” three or four pillars – but if another pillar collapses, the hard-earned construct collapses. Shining lights like Franz Beckenbauer know this. Specifically, it is about: Integrity, Conscious Emotionality, Extraversion, Empathy and Conscientiousness.
People form a judgment and want to confirm this judgment. It is easier to look for evidence to support a judgment once it has been made, rather than having to admit to having made a wrong decision. So if the first impression made is “successful,” there are advance praises. For a lasting charismatic charisma, however, the first impression must also be maintained. The magic word is integrity. The congruence of self-image and external image. The correspondence of one’s ideals with the real life practice. Anyone can pull themselves together for a few minutes and present their best side – but if you ruin your reputation at the very next opportunity, you won’t come across as charismatic in the long term. It is exhausting to be consistently congruent in thought, feeling and action – which is why there are so few charismatics. Hypocrites blow their cover.
For a charismatic person, efficiency in communication means being task-oriented or relationship-oriented, depending on the situation and the addressee. He or she masters both forms of communication in the toolbox and switches effortlessly between orientations to get where he or she wants to go. It is as if the person does not only speak the native language – in women it is more often an impulsive and emotional form of communication. By training herself, the woman is finally able to speak a foreign language – in this example, this would not be English, but a factual and emotionless argumentation logic. Mastering multiple languages does not make anyone less authentic.
But it is not only the spoken word that counts for conveying emotionality. Non-verbal language has a more direct effect on people than the spoken word. Humans have evolution to thank for that. Language probably originated about 100,000 years ago in East Asia and then slowly spread. Before that, man communicated only with his body. A discrepancy between the overall effect and subtle nuances in body language is subconsciously registered by the counterpart. Congruence in thinking, feeling and acting therefore also counts in non-verbal communication.
Personality traits such as extraversion have a beneficial and supportive effect on charismatic charisma. This does not mean that introverts cannot develop charisma, but they can learn something from the “louder” extroverts. Extroverts love branding. Her demeanor, her outfit, her styling, scream “Look here, here I am!” They make a brand out of themselves because they want to stand out. They want to be seen and go into contact. Introverts naturally less so. The cultivation of endearing nooks and crannies or foibles underscores the recognition value and continuity of personality traits.
Clothing, for example, can speak nonverbally. One study found that passersby are more likely to follow a pedestrian in an expensive suit or classy costume through a red light than a person in casual attire. Even John F. Kennedy noted, “It’s not that I want to look better, but it makes me feel better.” Symbols and rituals are important for every charismatic – whether he or she is more of a calm or stormy water. Factors such as body language, voice pitch, tone of voice, speaking rate and facial expressions also determine one’s own charisma quotient in addition to the actual content spoken.
The fourth essential building block of charisma competence is human warmth. Charismatic people convey compassion and warmth through open and friendly body language, not necessarily through the content they say. The tightrope walk between empathy and distance is a challenge, especially for many managers: The charismatic manager shows compassion without becoming too approachable. She always maintains a magical distance and does not stoop to the level of her followers. Queen Elizabeth II in particular is a vivid example of how difficult it can be to strike an appropriate balance between closeness and distance. She is still working on the right mix even after the diamond jubilee of the throne.
Leaders radiate warmth by making their employees and customers feel like they are fully with them. They show empathy when speaking while demonstrating undivided attention when listening. The willingness to listen alone does not make one charismatic. The decisive factor is the presence with which an interlocutor is appreciated. Active listeners do not interrupt their interlocutors, they listen sincerely, do not digress with their thoughts and convey the comfortable feeling of understanding the other person’s point of view, with all verbal and non-verbal possibilities. This does not mean that they have to be of the same opinion.
“Yes, we can” – Barack Obama’s famous 2008 campaign slogan suggested, “With Obama leading, we can do it.” Integrity, emotionality, extraversion, empathy – that’s all well and good, but if successes fail to materialize, a charismatic leader will not remain a leader for long. Great expectations were also placed on Obama, and at the end of his presidency many are denying him charisma skills. However, conscientiousness is not only important for leaders. Suppose you are in a partnership and constantly rave about goals and visions, but never successfully implement what you have said – each partner will be at least annoyed or even severely disappointed by this.
Acquiring charisma competence is not that difficult – what is difficult, however, is consciously noticing one’s own weaknesses and answering the question: Do I really want to be like this? If you want to work on yourself and your quirks, you’re halfway there.
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About the author
Kinga Bartczak advises, coaches and writes on female empowerment, new work culture, organizational development, systemic coaching and personal branding. She is also the managing director of UnternehmerRebellen GmbH and publisher of the FemalExperts magazine .