Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

Charismatic Leadership: The X-Factor in Politics

How to work on your charisma.

Posted Mar 08, 2012

People around the world seem to agree on which leaders possess that mysterious X-factor leadership quality: charisma. Jesus and Buddha had it, and so did Churchill, De Gaulle, FDR, Gandhi, JFK, Reagan and Clinton. Obama had it when he was running for president, but I am not sure whether he still has it or has somehow lost it. I am fairly sure that none of the Republican Candidates have that X-factor of leadership, charisma. 

What is charismatic leadership? The 19th century German sociologist Max Weber defined it in terms of "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities."

Following Weber's tradition, psychological research has primarily looked at the personal qualities underlying charisma. My esteemed colleague and fellow blogger at PT, leadership scholar Ronald Riggio, has studied the personal qualities that make individuals charismatic.1 He finds that charismatic leaders have strong oratory skills and they are very skilled in reading social situations as well as other people's minds.

My hunch is that this is only part of the story about charisma. Charismatic leadership is as much about the context as about the person. Think of the simple minded gardener Chance (played magnificently by Peter Sellers) in the classic movie "Being There" who accidentally rises to political power in Washington making very simple remarks about how  gardens change with seasons. Yet, the US politicians and public start to think of him as a very wise and charismatic leader—just what the country needs.

Now this may just be a movie but it resonates with psychological research suggesting that charisma, rather than a stable personality trait, is very much "in the eyes of the beholder." Here is how YOU can work on your charisma.

1. Seize Your Moment

Research suggests that groups have a strong desire for charismatic leadership when they suffer some existential threat. In one study social psychologists Cohen, Solomon et al. asked participants to write down what they thought would happen to them when they were dying.2 In a control condition they jotted down  what would happen when they were taking an important exam. They then rated the suitability of one of three candidates for a mock state governor election based on their speeches. Under the exam conditions they preferred a task-oriented leader ("I will implement state wide plans to provide the resources to get the job done").

Only in the dying condition did they prefer the charismatic leader who said things like: "My goal is to do things differently than my predecessors have done and I'm willing to take some chances to show my voters how things can be improved."

2. Be or Behave Different

Charisma is about change and novelty. It seems that charismatic leadership becomes important when groups are fed up with the existing political hierarchy of a group and are in desperate need of change. Think of the rising popularity of Jesus after widespread dissatisfaction with the corrupt Temple priests. If you want charisma it helps to be different. This could be literally true. A recent study by Senior, Martin and colleagues at Aston University Business School found that individuals with asymmetric bodies and faces scored higher on a transformational leadership scale (a measure of charisma).3  

This parallels stories about charismatic individuals in animal groups. These are outsiders who come new into a group and suddenly attract a lot of attention"attention-holding power." They use this attention to challenge the alpha of the group and overthrow him with the support of the subordinates who are fed up with being dominated.4

3. Develop your Prestige

Charisma is probably the oldest form of leadership that humans know because it is based entirely on the exceptional personal qualities of an individual. In hunter-gatherer societies (which is the model of the way our ancestors lived) people were only able to exercise influence once they had proven to be the best at something, say hunting or gathering, or because they possessed some unique knowledge, say herbal medicine. Thus, in order to get charisma, and attract followers, people were always looking for ways in which they could be most useful to the group, and once they found something, they worked hard on their skills. Thus they developed prestige.

In the complex world we live in it is not always easy to find out how to get prestige. But if you got something special that many people find useful, such as the skills and talents to build a computer or come up with a new ideology or religion that provides answers to people's existential questions, you will get your share of charisma.

Interested in more? Here is the link to a presentation I gave for the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce in London, UK, about the evolutionary psychology of leadership and followership, titled "Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters."

1. Riggio (1988). The charisma quotient. Dodd Mead

2. Cohen, Solomon, Maxfield, Pyszczynski, and Geenberg (2004). Fatal attraction. Psychological Science.

3. Senior, Martin, Thomas, Topakas, West, & Yeats (2011). Developmental stability and leadership effectiveness. Leadership Quarterly.

4. Van Vugt, & Ahuja (2011). Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership. Harper Business.