Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Are Charismatic Leaders Born or Made?

Can anyone become a charismatic leader?

The question of whether leaders are born or made is an old one. Recent research has provided a good answer: about one third consists of inborn qualities (e.g., temperament, personality), with two-thirds being "made" - developed over time through parenting, schooling, and experience.

But what about charismatic leaders? There is a strong belief that charisma is some innate quality or characteristic. You either have it or you don't. Truly charismatic leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and FDR seemed to possess some "magical" qualities. Likewise, everyday charismatic leaders seem to have some sort of gift (after all, charisma is defined as a "divine gift of grace"). But there is growing evidence that people can become more charismatic.

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Research has determined some of the key elements of charisma. Some are related to style (and personality), and may represent the "born" part of charisma, while other elements are behaviors that are acquired, developed, and honed over time. Some recent dissertations sought to train people to be more charismatic, and there was some success in doing this. Of course, individuals in these training programs were not transformed overnight. Developing the qualities associated with charisma requires a lot of effort and energy, and some people are better at developing charisma than others.

However, charisma is not something magical or mysterious. It is deeply rooted in ability to communicate emotionally (related to the notion of "emotional intelligence") and relationship skills that allow charismatic individuals to make deep connections with others. Oratorical skills, being positive and optimistic, and being emotionally expressive are also part of the building blocks of charisma.

Years ago, I wrote about our research with charisma and our early efforts to train people to be more charismatic. We are continuing this research, but focusing more broadly on developing emotional and interpersonal skills and helping leaders to become more skilled communicators in general. Of course, as one becomes a more skilled communicator, he or she is more likely to be perceived as "charismatic" by others.

So, the answer to the question is this: Yes! Charismatic leaders are both born and made. No doubt there are "naturally" charismatic individuals, but leadership, like charisma, can be developed and trained.

Resources:

Avolio, Bruce J. (2005). Leadership Development in Balance: Made/Born. Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Riggio, Ronald E. (1988). The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, How to Get It, How to Use It. Dodd Mead.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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