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The Charisma Myth

Now that some of the 2008 presidential candidates are out of the gate, it’s been fun to see who is being labeled with that mysterious quality, charisma. Of course, we can’t seem to hear Barack Obama’s name mentioned without it being accompanied by some form of the word. The others aren’t as lucky. Even John Edwards, who’s pretty good on the platform, doesn’t seem to fit the description. Neither does John McCain, Hillary Clinton or Rudolf Giuliani.

So what is it about people like Obama that makes us gush? Are there really winners and losers in the charisma game? First things first: there is a belief held by many people that charisma is inborn; you either have it or you don’t and if you don’t then you are just out of luck. But that is wrong. It’s a myth! Charisma is not inborn, it is learned.

Now it could be argued that some people are born with a personality type that gives them an edge in the charisma department. But if we look closely at what these folks are actually doing, we can break it down into discrete behaviors.

The most important of these behaviors is that charismatic people are able to draw others into their world and make them feel important. They do this by asking good questions and listening carefully to the answers. They understand that people’s favorite subject is — you guessed it — themselves! Everyone loves a good listener. As the author and speaker Susan RoAne says, “You don’t recommend your doctor by saying, ‘You ought to go to my doctor. She doesn’t listen to me.’ ” The charismatic among us are not faking it, by the way. They are truly interested in people.

The second behavior is that these folks really like people, find them fascinating and look forward to meeting and building relationships with new ones. They are very focused on what they can give…not what they can get. This is a very important quality because it eliminates them as a threat which, unfortunately, seems to have infected most business gatherings these days.

The third most important skill is they project a sense of personal comfort and confidence. We often hear that charismatic people are comfortable in their own skin. That may or may not be true. We have no way of knowing for certain whether Senator Obama, for example, is a content person, comfortable within himself and with his life. What people like Obama are clearly able to do, however, is to project confidence. Even if they don’t feel it. This is a neat trick because there are many people who may not be outgoing by nature, but who know that when they walk into that crowded room, they must assume a particular bearing so they can leave a positive impression. They want their effort to be worthwhile. They don’t want to waste their time by hanging out alone at the bar. There are many things that are required to accomplish this, but I also want to mention the many things that are not necessary such as having a lot of money, fancy jewelry, an expensive car or a degree from an elite college.

Now, here’s the good news: all the skills I mention above are available to anybody who wants to learn them. The fact is that people who are identified as having charisma learned at some point during their lives that certain behaviors worked to their advantage and they could practice them and improve. This certainly has worked for Obama who is a junior senator and I argue would not be on anyone’s radar without these qualities. As it is right now, though, he is a powerful candidate that everyone is talking about. Oh yeah, charisma is a great way to get attention.

Not all business leaders have charisma just like not all U.S. presidents or presidential candidates do. But I think the world would be a more interesting place if they did.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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