The word charismatic gets thrown about quite a bit. I’ve heard people call someone “charismatic” when I would have labelled that same individual “bombastic a**hole.” I’ve also encountered people I would label as highly charismatic that others describe as inaccessible or aloof.
The last year has been an interesting study in political charisma, with Justin Trudeau charming people in Canada and beyond while the remarkable success of Donald Trump’s campaign has left many Americans (and even more non-Americans) scratching their heads in puzzlement. These two men couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet they both manage to have buckets of charisma.
If we tried to describe how they both fit the definition or description of a charismatic person, we would fail miserably. Determining consistent traits that constitute “charisma” is next to impossible; it is an inherently indefinable concept. But for the sake of intellectual exercise, let’s get a geeky and try to tackle this very slippery term.
Like most exercises in etymology, looking at the history of the word doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to what it actually means in today’s context. The Greek original means “grace,” liberally peppered with divine conference of said grace.
Great, except that a good chunk of the population probably does not view the latest charismatic business leader as touched by god (notwithstanding the late Steve Jobs).
A quick online search comes up with several definitions that use “charm” as a main characteristic of charisma. But I’ve seen plenty of charismatic people who have the charm factor of a rusted saw. They don’t charm their way into their followers’ brains, they bash their way in. Donald Trump is, once again, a case in point.
The best descriptions of charisma I’ve found come from famed German sociologist Max Weber, who thought big thoughts about politics, leadership, and authority during the turn of the 20th century. He viewed charisma as a powerful but irrational and largely arbitrary mantel given to a person by his followers (or if not by followers, than by people who found that person highly interesting). Weber does incorporate a sense of the divine into the charismatic person’s aura, in that a charismatic person has skills or traits that appear unattainable or nearly supernatural to their audience. The trait could be intellectual brilliance, otherworldly beauty, unflappable devotion to an idea or ideal, and so on. It doesn’t rely on any one universal trait, because different groups of people seek different traits from charismatic leaders.
So what makes up a characteristic person? Well, identifying a specific what doesn’t really matter, because the ‘what’ will change from group to group, tribe to tribe, culture to culture.
What matters is to identify the who, and in this case the ‘who’ is the group.
Weber argues that even though the charismatic leader appears to have power and considerable influence over their followers, in reality it is that leader who relies 100% on their followers for recognition. No recognition? No charisma.
Want to be charismatic? First, figure out what group of people you want to perceive you as charismatic. Then, learn what they need, learn how they communicate, and adapt to them. Like anything else in business, it’s about your customer, not you.