Cutting-Edge Leadership

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

Celebrity vs. Charisma: What’s the Difference?

What makes people charismatic?

Kim Kardashian, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Madonna, and Mick Jagger are some of the well-known people who are labeled “charismatic” by much of the public. They seem to have that special gift that draws people to them, and keeps them in the public eye. But do they truly possess charisma, or is it simply that they are popular, attractive, and lead interesting lives?

 As one of a small group of social scientists that have studied personal charisma, I can tell you that charisma and celebrity are not the same, although they are often confused. For some individuals, however, charisma and celebrity go hand-in-hand.

The earliest discussion of charisma was by German sociologist, Max Weber, who discussed the charisma of leaders. He asserted that in times of need a person with “special qualities” can arise on the scene and people are captivated by the person and willingly follow. He is talking about both charisma (the “special qualities”) and a sort of celebrity that captivates the followers. But the celebrity is a social construction: It is what the followers essentially create for the leader. In the same way, the public “creates” celebrities, but only some celebrities are truly charismatic.

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The “special qualities” of truly charismatic individuals are sophisticated social and emotional skills that allow the charismatic person to engage others in a deep, and often meaningful, way. When someone meets a truly charismatic person, such as a Bill Clinton or Oprah Winfrey, there is a feeling that a “connection” is made. People often say, he/she “made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”

What are these special skills? 1) Ability to express felt emotions to others in a genuine way; 2) Ability to “read” emotional signals in others and respond to them; 3) Skill in controlling the emotional tone of the interaction; 4) And a sophisticated self-presentation and understanding of social situations that we are calling “savoir-faire.” You can read more about charisma here.

It is important to emphasize that charisma isn’t limited to celebrities and politicians. In all likelihood, you have one or several friends who are charismatic: they are able to “light up the room” when they enter. They make people feel good and good about themselves.

So, the difference between celebrities and true charismatics is that when we meet the non-charismatic celebrities there is a sense of disappointment. The veil of celebrity is lifted, and you realize that the person is nothing special.

Can the special qualities associated with charisma be learned? Certainly, but it’s not easy. It takes a great deal of time and dedication, but we’ve found that when people develop their emotional and social skills, they are able to make deeper and more meaningful connections with others. They have more satisfying social interactions and relationships.

 

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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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