Can Charisma Be Taught? The 90% Theory And Why That Can Be Enough

Jack Welch at the World Business Forum, October 5 2010 (Photo by dov.com)

Charisma – “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty (Webster Dictionary)

You notice them the minute they enter a room.  That aura, that confidence,  that vibe.

All eyes will find them.   And they will attract a crowd.

When they appear on stage or in a meeting, the electricity is palpable.  The listeners hang on every word, and delight in the wit and candor they display.

Who are these people?  The charismatic leaders.

I saw one of them last week at the World Business Forum (#wbf10 on Twitter)  in New York – former General Electric CEO Jack Welch.    He had quite the command of the audience, answering questions with searing honesty and with a flair only possessed by the charismatic.

Only he could proclaim “Twitter is Fun” with a mixture of devilish charm and gravitas, and not make it sound pedestrian.

I’ve also been fortunate to work for two CEO’s that had plenty of charisma, and I always marveled at their ability to project such “presence” in any public space they inhabited.

Over the last 25 years, while I’ve worked for these two leaders, I’ve often wondered if charisma is just one of those things you’re born with, and cannot be taught.

Something almost supernatural – a gift from above, as it were.  After all, that’s the Greek origin of the word.

And goodness knows I’ve put a lot of personal effort into creating charisma, but I can’t say I’ve ever recreated the kind of buzz my old bosses did when they worked their magic.

Watching Jack Welch last week resurfaced all those wonderings, and while it’s still somewhat mysterious to me, after a few days of contemplation I finally have a theory about charisma.

The theory?   Charisma CAN be taught – to a degree.   About 90% of it, in my view, is obtainable through experience, self-awareness, observation, confidence, good grooming and appearance, intelligence,  a good command of the language, and (maybe most importantly), a unwavering belief that you have it.

(Yes, if you’re thinking, “you mean even just acting like I have charisma”, you are correct)

The other 10% is a gift.   A wonderful, special gift, much like artistic, athletic, or musical ones that put those lucky enough to have it a notch ahead of the rest of us at the starting gate.

But the real question is – if we don’t have the 10%, can we still get to leadership greatness with the 90%, or even less than that?

Oh yes we can.

Because in my view that 10% can be overcome with three things  – hard work, a passion for leadership,  and sheer determination.

We see this every day out in the business world – CEO “rock stars” being outflanked , outhustled, and ultimately beaten by those “90 percenters”.

There’s no doubt that there is something special about those who can project the full potency of charisma – my immense enjoyment of Jack Welch is testament to that – but it’s no guarantee of success, nor is it an unbeatable difference between winning and losing..

If you’re like me, getting to the 90% is enough give greatness a heck of a good shot.  And that’s all we can ask for, putting ourselves in the best position to succeed, given the gifts from above we do possess.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Terry,

    I’m one of the big believers in the idea that charisma can be taught and learned, and in a way, what a help many of my clients do is develop their charisma. I thing that we need to understand accurately what makes a person have charisma before developing it and this is where many people struggle, which is why they think charisma is something you’re born with. We need a good operational definition of charisma.

  2. says

    ABSOLUTELY NOT!

    Real charisma is god given–100% of it..Don’t confuse “polish” for charisma..No amount of, “polish, experience, self-awareness, observation, confidence, good grooming and appearance, intelligence, a good command of the language, and (maybe most importantly), a unwavering belief that you have it,” will ever come close to the effect of real charisma–and trust me–I love JW, but he does not have charisma–charismatic maybe, but not charisma..Sorry..

  3. says

    Thanks for this, Terry. Interesting to see that the two comments before mine are “I agree” and “no way!” Personally, I think that *anything* can be taught (ok, I’ll limit that with “almost”), but I really like the way that you only bring it to 90%. It acknowledges that there are some things that are pre-built into individuals, but the rest of us can transcend those limitations we have to the best of our ability.

  4. says

    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with at least some of what you’ve said above, you can decide which part that is, after you finish reading this….

    I find that the need to succeed can sometimes be a stressful thing, therefore, I find that instead of worrying about things that are ultimately out of my control, I take care of always being the best in my chosen fields of expertise. And I have many. Well, several. A few? :)

  5. Thomas W Cornell says

    Charismatic leaders, especially in the political areana can be the most dangerous leaders ever. We can all think of such examples. Charisma does not mean that a leader has managerial competence, or any sence of moral direction.
    The reason charismatic leaders are often chosen in business organizations is because they can influence people or customers. In other words they can sell. The real tasks of management are left to technocrats in sub-governmental and managerial units.
    The CEO or the elected official is really only a figurehead or puppet of any organization. For expample I cannot imagine that George Soros or Warren Buffet exercise any real contol of their organizations, especially at their age. Moreover, they don’t have the time. They are however as well known as John McCain and Jimmy Carter, usefull only as icons.

    The most usefull charismatic leaders I can think of in the corporate world are Jack (Jack in the Box) Colonel Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) because they don’t draw salaries and perks. Former movie stars like Schwatzenegger as Governator of California have time only to make appearances. I am unaware that the Governator has any professional education. His policies change almost on a monthly basis.
    In the age of televised media the leaders of former eras would never come to power. Think about how ugly Abe Lincoln was. Or about a crippled alcoholic like FDR. They could not be chosen to “lead’ organizations today, even if they were best qualified.

  6. says

    Hi Eduard, Carlos, Lyman, Superteebs, Mike, Wally, and Thomas – thanks for your comments.

    Eduard, I agree with you – there needs to be a more “operational” definition of charisma.

    Hey Carlos, thanks again for a great exchange here, and on Twitter. I agree there is a difference between “real” charisma and the 90% that I’m talking about, so I would say that the real issue here is – how “wide” is that difference? I’m saying 10%, and it appears you believe it’s much wider than that.

    Lyman, transcend is the perfect word to describe what I was trying to say in my post! That’s exactly right.

    Superteebs, I absolutely agree with you. :-)

    Mike, I don’t think you can go wrong with your personal philosophy- striving to be the best and not worrying about things you cannot control is a a pretty sound way to go, any discussion of charisma notwithstanding.

    Wally, thank you!

    Thomas, I agree that a great leader needs more than charisma. That’s why I wrote that it can be transcended (thanks again Lyman for that word!). What you pointed out so well in your examples was now real leadership has to be considered as the “sum of the parts”, rather than one or two attributes, or how a person looks, or talks, or acts. And, yes, television has had a profound effect on how leaders are perceived, for better or worse (Probably more worse). Nevertheless, charisma is a factor that has to be considered in that “sum”.

    Thanks again to all of you, and all the best!
    Terry

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