Charisma and Vision

Emotions such as intensity and empathy contribute to charisma and vision.

Posted May 20, 2016

Before Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, embarrassed himself this week in a parliamentary altercation, he was attracting international attention for his youth, good looks, and charisma. Charisma is defined as compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, but this definition does not address the emotional nature of attraction and inspiration.   

The method of 3-analysis provides a richer characterization, by specifying exemplars (standard examples), typical features, and explanations. The exemplars include Trudeau, Steve Jobs, and other prominent leaders and celebrities, both evil and good. 

The typical features of charismatic people explain the effects they have on others. These are typical features, not defining characteristics, so exceptions such as Hitler's lack of empathy do not defeat the 3-analysis. As Ronald Riggio describes, charismatic people exhibit emotional expressiveness that displays their intensity and confidence, but they are also sensitive to the emotions of others by practicing empathy. Emotional control is important for charisma because sometimes leaders need to disguise their extreme emotions to be effective with others.

Social expressiveness is skill in verbal and nonverbal communication that enables charismatic people to be entertaining and effective public speakers. Social sensitivity is the ability to interpret complex social situations by listening to others and becoming intimate with them. Social control is the ability to fit in with all sorts of people and make emotional connections with them by operating with poise and grace.

People who possess these features can influence other people in ways that secure their devotion and contribute to social and business success. Hence charisma has an important explanatory role in assessing leadership. With a leader such as Steve Jobs, who was effective at instilling emotions in the form of values and motivations in other people, a group can be more successful at accomplishing its goals in such fields as politics and business. Charisma can also contribute to marketing when products are endorsed by people who are emotionally attractive and compelling. 

Charismatic leaders usually have a novel but compelling vision, but what is that?   From the perspective of cognitive science, a vision is an emotionally coherent system of values, goals, beliefs, and plans. Below is a value map of Steve Jobs’ system of values and goals, which constituted an important part of the vision that he used to turn Apple around. Other important elements of his vision included his beliefs about where Apple had gone wrong and his plans to simplify the Apply product line. A charismatic leader such as Jobs or Trudeau can impart his vision to followers by a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication that instills in co-workers an arrangement of cognition and emotions roughly similar to his own.   

Jobs frequently said that the main driving force behind his work was the desire to make great products, a value shared by his most important collaborators, from Steve Wozniak to Jony Ive. In contrast to many entrepreneurs and executives, the goal of making money was always for them subordinate to the pride that came from producing wonderful machines. What made a device wonderful, however, is not just the engineering feat that it accomplishes, but also its ease of use by people who buy it.

A key aspect of successful use of a product is simplicity, providing users with just the features they need rather than all the bells and whistles that some engineers proliferate, as in Microsoft Word. Steve Wozniak valued simplicity in his engineering designs, always trying to get the most results with the fewest number of chips. One key to simplicity is to focus on a small number of products. When Jobs revitalized Apple in 1997, he abandoned a large range of products that the company had been trying to produce such as printers and the Newton personal digital assistant. Instead he insisted that the company focus on four main products: a personal computer for professional uses and for ordinary ones, and a laptop for professional users and for ordinary ones.

For Jobs, another key to a positive experience for users is artistic design, not just the provision of powerful technology. Jobs insisted that great products need to combine art and engineering so that devices are beautiful as well as useful. Design should ensure that users feel good about their experiences with the products, an emotional aspect discussed further below.

Steve Jobs was a notorious perfectionist, always wanting devices to have just the right appearance and performance. He was sometimes tyrannical in insisting that his coworkers live up to his standards, demanding last-minute changes that created great stress for his employees. But Jobs's perfectionism also often led to components that contributed substantially to the appeal of the products. For example, the iPhone was originally supposed to have a plastic screen, but Jobs insisted that a glass screen would look and wear better, and he managed to convince the president of Corning to produce the desired component.

Jobs realized that great products could not be produced by himself alone. Almost all the design of the Apple II was done by Steve Wozniak, who was a much more technically proficient engineer than Jobs. Later Apple products required teams of dozens or hundreds of engineers and designers, who needed to work closely together to bring about the most effective combinations of hardware and software. Jobs maintained that one of the keys to effective teams was having what he called “A people” rather than “B people”, where A people are ones extraordinarily talented in engineering and/or design. He realized from the start that great products depend on having a great team, a social aspect of creativity discussed more thoroughly below.

Jobs used the term “bozo” for incompetent people, applying this term to engineers, designers, and especially executives who did not pursue the goal of producing great products. In a 1995 video interview, Jobs talks about the “corruption” that set in at Apple during his absence, with managers only concerned about their own power and pay rather than the creative success of the company. For Jobs, the most common way of denigrating products that failed to be great was to say that they suck or are shit. Both of these expressions summarize a set of negative emotions, including disappointment, disgust, and hatred. 

Value map of Steve Job’s vision, where green ovals are positive values, red hexagons are negative values, solid lines indicate mutual support, and dotted lines indicate incompatibility. 

Paul Thagard
Source: Paul Thagard