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Charisma: What Is It? Do You Have It?

Which famous people have charisma? How do you compare?

Although people may not agree on a definition of charisma, they can generally agree on who has it and who doesn't.

When I ask people to list charismatic public figures, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR, Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are commonly and frequently mentioned. Ask about charismatic people from the world of entertainment and Oprah Winfrey tops the list, and Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, are charismatic stars from the past.

On the surface, charismatic individuals, such as Bill Clinton, Mohandas Gandhi, and Oprah Winfrey seem to have little in common (besides being in positions of influence and leadership). But they all are recognized as having that "something special" that is charisma.

What is charisma? I've been studying that question for more than 30 years and we believe we have a good understanding of the personal qualities that can make any individual "charismatic." This "personal charisma" is not the same as charismatic leadership, but charismatic leaders possess most, if not all, of the basic building blocks of personal charisma.

Personal charisma is a constellation of complex and sophisticated social and emotional skills. They allow charismatic individuals to affect and influence others at a deep emotional level, to communicate effectively with them, and to make strong interpersonal connections.

Here are the elements of personal charisma:

Emotional expressiveness. Charismatic individuals express their feelings spontaneously and genuinely. This allows them to affect the moods and emotions of others. We all know charismatic people who seem to "light up the room" when they enter. They typically express positive affect, but they can also stir us up when they are angry or irritated.

Emotional sensitivity. This is the ability to read others' emotions and allows the charismatic person to make an emotional connection by responding to their feelings. Just yesterday someone commented (for about the hundredth time) that Bill Clinton has a special ability to emotionally connect with people — to "make the person feel like he or she is the only person in the room."

Emotional control. Truly charismatic individuals have the ability to control and regulate their emotional displays. They don't "fly off the handle" (unless they purposely want to in order to make a point). They are good emotional actors, who can turn on the charm when they need to.

Social expressiveness. This is the ability to engage others in social interaction. Charismatic people are skilled and entertaining conversationalists. They certainly affect us with their emotional expressiveness, but there is also power in their words. Nearly all charismatic leaders are effective public speakers.

Social sensitivity. This is a skill in reading and interpreting social situations, being able to listen to others, and be "in tune" with them. It helps charismatic people to be tactful and sensitive to their surroundings.

Social control. This is a sophisticated, social role-playing skill that is particularly important for charismatic leaders. It can be seen in the way that charismatic leaders (or everyday "charismatics") carry themselves with poise and grace. It allows them to fit in with all sorts of people and make those emotional and social connections that distinguish charismatic individuals from those of us who possess less personal charisma.

While these are the six "building blocks" of personal charisma, and possessing more of each is generally better, it is also critical that people have balance among the various skills. For example, too much emotional expressiveness, without the ability to control and "turn it off," can detract from personal charisma (think of a Robin Williams or Jim Carrey type).

Years ago, we developed a self-report measure of these basic social skills that together compose personal charisma. It helps provide a starting point for understanding one's own personal emotional and social skills (similar to the popular notions of emotional intelligence and social intelligence). We have also determined that people can indeed develop and hone their basic social skills, and, in fact, increase their personal charisma. More on developing charisma potential in a future post.

Want to learn more about charisma? Here is an article. You can also check out my book, The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, and How to Get It, and follow me on Twitter.