Tag Archives: Charisma

Time to end our love affair with charisma

Is it time to end our love affair with charisma?

As an unabashed cheerleader for smart and engaging communication, I want to explore whether that mysterious quality is given too much weight.

The truth is someone who is extremely charismatic and/or connects deeply with a certain group can often skate on the knowledge required to actually do the job she or he has auditioned for. That ends up being no good for anyone because ultimately, that individual will be found out, often after much damage has been done.

On the other hand, we are human beings, having evolved over the millennia to be emotional and respond in kind. There is a natural selection process involved here that influences our choice of partners in both business and life and certainly in our decisions about what leaders to support and follow.

So the question, then, is not that an over-reliance on charisma can get us into trouble (it can), but how do we manage our response to it so it doesn’t overwhelm facts or our ability to make the most informed decisions?

nazirallyinggrounds2If you read my personal note, you saw I was recently in Nuremberg, Germany a city made infamous by Hitler and the Nazi Party and also famous by the German government and the Allies, which held the war crimes trials post-World War II. I walked in his footsteps. (If you look closely at this grainy photo, you’ll see Hitler in the foreground with his arm raised.) I then reviewed the propaganda. It was horrifying, to say the least.

In graduate school in communications, Hitler was one of the first leaders I studied. A charismatic speaker, we know he was able to inspire his followers, many of whom were average, middle-class people, to commit unspeakable acts against their fellow human beings.






(The Nazi Rallying grounds today)

Recognizing the horror of what had happened, an interesting phenomenon took hold: The country became a prime example of “anti-charisma.” I fondly recall working in Frankfurt some years ago for a big, international banking conglomerate and being struck by how “boring” the clients were. I didn’t get it at the time, though I should have. It was as if the German people had collectively decided that charisma could lead to very dark outcomes and should thus be treated with suspicion.

nazigroupinggrounds3v2That is a foreign concept to us in the US.

So back to my question about how to manage our response to charisma. First, in business, it is unlikely that charisma alone will get you the job, the deal, the recognition. There has to be some “there” there for that to happen. What it can do, however, is help you get a foot in the door.

Once that happens, it’s up to the person(s) responsible for choosing to do their homework, to thoroughly vet and research. To rely entirely on the emotional response and say, “I like her! (or him!)” is not enough. Behaving in that way is shirking a greater responsibility.

The true role of charisma then, in my opinion, is to function as a delivery vehicle for depth and knowledge. It does not stand alone.

 We saw what happened in Germany and Europe when it did. 

Propaganda And The Future Of America


(Andrew Harnik / AP Photo)

Most of us aren’t delving into policy statements posted on candidates’ website. We should, but, we’re not. We’re also not reading in-depth reporting in the major papers. The fact is, most of the information we use to decide whom to vote for comes from TV – appearances, interviews, ads, and debates.Propaganda.

That’s why it’s absolutely critical to understand what the candidates are doing communication-wise so we don’t get tricked into voting for someone just because they seem like they’d be fun to have a beer with. Here are some of the things to look for:

1. Repetition. This is also known in my field as message discipline. Repeating a message over and over trains people to believe it. Be skeptical.

2. Folksy humor. A sense of humor is always a good thing, but just because someone is good at the down-home metaphors and sayings, doesn’t make him or her qualified to be president.

3. Entertainment factor. Similar to #2. The more entertaining a candidate is, the more likely we are to give him or her a pass when it comes to policy. Don’t.

4. Slogans. These are simple and repeatable. Some are inspiring. Some make you want to shout them out loud. They’re meant to make you feel good, like you have some power. But you don’t and they’re basically empty.

5. Personal Story. A.K.A., “back story,” this is the up-by-the-bootstraps story a candidate has to tell. In the communication circles, it’s known as the “hero journey.” Recall George W. Bush in his pickup truck with his dogs in tow clearing brush vs. John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket. Even though Bush hails from political royalty, who do you think people felt was more like them?

6. Delivery. Refers to how candidates look, sound, move, and travel. If they are great speakers, they have a huge advantage in getting votes. It’s why I’m astonished when a candidate gives a poor performance. But, just because a candidate is a great speaker, doesn’t mean he’ll make a great president. Look beyond this.

These are just a few of the tricks of the trade. The more informed you are about them, the more you’ll be able to get to the truth about who these people are and what they can do for you and the country.