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Understanding the human animal in the workplace

Can Charisma Be Taught?

Top 10 tips to be a more effective leader.

If you want to be effective as manager, politician, parent or coach it helps to have a little bit of that X-factor leadership quality, charisma. In a previous blog I suggested that charisma is the oldest and most effective form of leadership because it is based on an intimate, personalized interaction style.

Charismatic leaders appeared in our ancestral environment whenever there was a need to quickly mobilize the masses for some common cause like a war or natural disaster. Through signaling their ability to unite a large crowd and motivate them to go the proverbial extra mile for their group, they obtain charismatic powers. Think Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

This all seems a bit remote from the world of business and education but even there a little bit of charisma can go a long way. So do you have what it takes? If not don’t worry because you can train it. It seems there is nothing mysterious about charisma after all. Charismatic leadership can actually be taught. Recent research conducted by a team of scientists led by John Antonakis from the University Lausanne Business School, shows that training managers a specific set of charismatic leadership tactics improves their charisma, and thus, their effectiveness as leaders.

In a first study they randomly assigned a sample of managers from a large Swiss company to either a charismatic training course or no course. The training consisted of a lecture on the principles of charismatic leadership (including watching scenes from movies like Dead Poets Society), a presentation, and a feedback report. Both before the training and three months after, these managers were assessed by their co-workers (who did not know that their managers had received the charisma training).Their charisma significantly improved after the course.

In a second study the researchers videotaped the speeches of a group of MBA students before and after the charisma training, and these speeches were rated on charismatic content by independent assessors. Again, the training significantly improved the students’ charisma and perceived effectiveness as leaders.

So, what skills were being trained? The researchers came up with a long list of Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs). In case you want to develop your personal charisma, here are the most important CLTs and what I regard to be their primary function.

(1) Use metaphors (e.g.,"We brought our competitors to their knees “, “We must change course”)

Function: Metaphors are excellent in showing off how smart you are

(2) Use stories and anecdotes

Function: Personal stories are the best remembered parts of a speech 

(3) Display moral conviction (e.g., “This is the right thing to do”)

Function: To show your honesty and integrity as a leader

(4) Stress collective sentiments ("We will be stronger")

Function: This shows the audience that you are concerned about their welfare not your own

(5) Set high expectations for yourself and your followers

Function: It takes someone and something special to solve this crisis

(6) Communicate confidence

Function: Explain why they should follow you and not someone else

(7) Use rhetorical questions like “Why should you hear about this from me”

Function: Make your vision theirs

(8) Body gestures like raising your arms, putting up your thumbs, or inflating your chest

Function: This make you look bigger, better, and more important

(9) Facial expressions (e.g., smiling, nodding, looking calm)

Function: Audiences copy these facial expressions unconsciously (mimicry) and this makes them feel better

(10) Keep an animated voice tone

Function: To keep your audience captivated throughout your speech

Before you go out there, you might want to practice these charismatic skills in the mirror or in front of your beloved ones. 

How do you know you have improved your charisma? If you can persuade your children to eat their vegetables or go to bed without complaining!

 

Antonakis, J., Fenley, M., & Liechti, S. (2011). Can Charisma be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10, 374-396.

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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