Charisma – all about authenticity, or tactics?

Can you learn charisma, or is it an innate gift?

Because it is so intimately linked with power, the distribution of charisma was closely guarded for millennia. Now many seek it.

Charisma was originally linked with the power of persuasion, or the mastery of arguing content originally codified by Artistotle’s The Art of Rhetoric, that was the MBA of antiquity. Then, advances in psychology allowed leaders to harness the powers of myth, archetype and unconscious drive in shaping human destiny. Now, social science shows modern communicators how outcomes can be radically shaped by mastery of verbal and non-verbal styles.

What hasn’t changed over the millennia is that people with true charisma have some intangible quality that sets them apart. This special “je ne sais quoi” means that two people presenting identical content, and perhaps even exhibiting superficially similar behaviours, may elicit radically differing levels of acceptance by their audiences. No wonder charisma remains so enigmatic – and continues to invite different answers to the question of how to acquire it.

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One school of thought – let’s call them “the Behaviourists” – proposes that it’s  possible to become charismatic by learning certain standardised types of behavior. One proponent describes her method as “fake it till you make it.” Let’s name the other approach the “Energetic” school of thought. This seeks more natural and more authentic ways of revealing the charisma that is hidden in each one of us.

Behaviourists suggest that by training “power poses”  such as arms-akimbo and other status-enhancing techniques, it’s possible to transform the personality to reflect new, socially standardised concepts of personal power.

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Yet this behaviourist track contains a deep conceptual flaw. If having charisma means “being different,” then all those learning the same techniques will look and sound alike, so rapidly becoming impervious to each others’ charisma. If all the would-be alpha males attending a meeting have been trained up to adopt exactly the same “power pose,” then who will emerge victorious?

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Nonetheless, social scientists have proven that artificially adopting certain behaviours will – quite independently of circumstance or content – help to balance our power-inducing hormones. Certain gestures raise the body’s levels of  testosterone while simultaneously lowering stress-promoting cortisol. This may create an aura of power to help waft us through alien or stressful circumstances like job interviews or public presentations.

So a small industry has grown up around the observation and codifying of Charisma Leadership Tactics or CLT. These hold that certain types of body language – notably the wide-open, expansive gestures also visible in dominant primates – will create stronger and more positive impressions, regardless of content. By contrast, folded, collapsed or submissive gestures drain power and so lower charisma.

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. Research published by Harvard Business School academics suggests that some business leaders have learned by trial and error what it takes to increase their persuasive powers, and to gain acceptance for propositions for which empirical evidence may still be lacking (the ability to sell a compelling “vision of the future”).

A trio of researchers from the University of Lausanne carried out blind tests with students who were invited to watch and then grade presentations from speakers before and after they had received CLT training.

The arguments presented at a 2012 TED talk by Harvard social scientist Amy Cuddy in favour of the “fake it till you make it” style of positive reinforcement, are certainly powerful. In experiments, the reactions of grad students to techniques such as “executives” parking their  feet on the office desk were measurable.

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Likewise, the premise behind The Charisma Myth: Master the art of personal magnetism by the US coach Olivia Fox Cabane, is that the way we hold our bodies can change the way our minds operate. So if we change our bodies we will change our minds and therefore positively enhance our life outcomes.

What’s needed, according to the approaches favoured by Cuddy, Cabane and others, is rigorous adherence to personal disciplines of “body-retraining” by following certain tips and tricks. These might include star-spreading our arms like victorious footballers, putting our feet on the desk, practicing slower speaking, powerful handshakes, even briefly ‘tuning-out’ at parties to enhance focus and mystique. These tactics will, we’re told, result in greater “presence.”

Scoring  by social scientists  after use of such tactics detects rapid learning. But like many other “easy come” techniques, these may also prove to be “easy go” if not grounded in personality.

All such approaches are based on the tactical premise that it’s necessary to adopt habits that are unnatural to us and to eventually become somebody quite different, if we are ever to become truly charismatic. Parts of our own personality will, it appears, have to be discarded along the way.

And as we work busily through the exercise plan to acquire this new “third party” charisma, what happens to our innate charisma? How will those around us observe the change? Will colleagues, family friends or investors detect that something artificial  and perhaps insincere is going on?

That’s why we need to look at the “Energetic” approach. So called because it’s based on mapping the energies we possess, and learning how to apply them most fruitfully. This  starts from a radically different premise – everyone is charismatic.  The challenge is to uncover what’s there, not add techniques.

So how do we go about uncovering this authentic charisma hidden within? The process of first mapping, then measuring, and going on to manage our own natural assets is what makes up the original methodology we call Communicate Charisma.

We believe that, just like a certain premium lager, it reaches the parts of the communicative persona that CLTs don’t truly reach. And because it’s based on being truly yourself, you won’t ever find somebody else doing exactly the same thing. Find out how in the next instalment.


Understanding the Charisma of Martin Luther King

A few weeks back we began exploring and analysing the communicative power of the twentieth century’s most charismatic individual, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK). You can scroll down to find the first article published September 3rd 2013, or simply click on this link.

King’s “I have a dream” speech delivered in August 1963 changed political and social reality for all time, and this four-word quote is probably the most cited of any in the English language. Everyone who communicates has something to learn from this man’s enduring legacy.


So we decided to put Communicate Charisma at the service of users to the test, by asking readers to use the survey  methodology to tell us what they think about Martin Luther King — and then to analyse the results. It was a natural step: everyone  who logs on to the site  ( is already asked, by way of a warm-up, to complete their own quick assessment of any charismatic individual.

We simply channeled folk toward  choosing Martin Luther King as their “Famous Communicator.” And the first results are in  from this mini “Wisdom of Crowds” experiment to discover how people experience Dr King today, on the 50th anniversary of his speech to 250,000 people in Washington’s National Mall in August 1963. The anniversary, of course, was topped off by US President Barack Obama’s commemorative speech from the self-same place August 27th 2013.


As those who’ve completed it for themselves will know, the Communicate Charisma profile of MLK (and everyone else) comes in two parts. We call these the Two Dimension profile, and the Seven Dimension profile.

First is a two-dimensional grid that shows how individuals project their persona onto situations. The 2D Charisma Projection Profile, predictably, has twin axes.


The vertical axis (Large-Small) shows whether individuals are perceived as having greater effectiveness when communicating publicly with large groups, or using a more intimate style with smaller groups. The horizontal axis (Empathy – Persuasion) shows whether individuals are seen as having greater effectiveness when using emotional intelligence to engage, or when using the typically persuasive skills of argument and logic.

In MLK’s case, predictably enough, the overall personality type as defined by Communicate Charisma is that of “Evangelist.”  People of this type are adept at galvanizing large groups through formal, high-energy opportunities.

On the vertical axis, there is strong bias toward large groups. This places MLK as a “Performer”, suggesting he was comfortable and articulate with large groups.

It’s worth noting some bias here. Our experience of MLK is, inevitably,  via the media and as a man associated with crowds. Like many public  figures, it’s harder  for us to conceive of MLK as a private man or one who worked with small groups as effectively as large masses.

On the horizontal axis, MLK’s profile shows a very slight bias for persuasion over empathy. Communicate Charisma defines the “Polymath” personality type as holding a natural balance between empathy-based and persuasive communication styles.

The circular graphic or Seven Dimension (7D) Charisma  Profile shows the essence of every communicator.  It uncovers the full spectrum of personal strengths MLK is considered by our sample of respondents, to have possessed.


From the accompanying table you can see the perceived energy level and range from each of these Seven Dimensions. You can also see the personality type description that Communicate Charisma has defined for the assessment results in each Dimension.


In MLK’s case, predictably, the two Dimensions with the highest energy levels are Vision (V2) and Drive (D). As the architect of a clear vision of the future, MLK scores 7.1 in the V2 segment of the circular plot (one of the highest possible scores).  As a man who galvanized the March on Washington and whose moral indignation urged African-American population forwards, MLK was a man of huge Drive. Unsurprisingly, his D score is 7 (one of the highest possible scores).

The “Wisdom of Crowds” Charisma Profile of MLK also shows he scores strongly on Beliefs (6.9), Ambition (6.9), Values (6.7). The “word cloud” shows the most-selected terms chosen to describe MLK in the assessments.


Obviously those completing the survey never knew MLK personally – but the result provides a fascinating  — and we believe highly reliable — snapshot of popular perceptions of this great and charismatic communicator. What is clear is that the shared vision we have of MLK translates compellingly through the mapping and measuring process of Communicate Charisma.

If the portrait you find in these graphics corresponds with the image you already hold in your mind of MLK, then that’s a piece of evidence  regarding the  reliability and validity of the Communicate Charisma model. And of course, as the number of people who  complete the survey on MLK grows over time, so the portrait becomes more accurate, more nuanced — and even more valid.

As a first foray into the world of charisma, this exercise shows how  in practical  terms we can map, measure and analyse our shared perceptions of other people. The next step, of course, is to analyse ourselves in order to create a reliable snapshot of our own Charisma. Once we know more about the effect we have on others and have a scientific framework on which to base our behaviour, then we can  begin to work on our own profiles in order to exercise leadership influence while retaining our authenticity. That is the goal of charismatic leaders.

The next goal is to learn how we ourselves can  nurture and develop some of the those same skills used by Great Communicators  – albeit in far more modest measure.

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Richard House