Charisma, or The Elephant in the RoomDec 23, 2020
Charisma, or The Elephant in the Room
Charisma - Haters Gonna Hate (but I’m not one of them)
Charisma. Depending on your perspective, this word is either deeply alluring or anathema. It signals an appealing construct you have (or would like to have) or something to be sacrificed on the altar of logic.
I don’t think you have to take sides.
The argument goes something like this: “Having charisma makes you fake, manipulative, a politician, a poser, a wannabe” and so on. And generally, they don’t possess it anyway. Those in favour of charisma will collate it with ‘charm’ or ‘magnetism’, something that pulls them, something they want to have, something they already possess.
And almost everyone in those categories believes CHARISMA CAN’T BE LEARNED.
If you could learn it, what would YOU do with it? Consider this:
A scalpel in the hands of a surgeon can have very different outcomes than a psychopath. Should scalpels be banned? It’s all about the intention and the skill of the application - whether it’s a scalpel...or charisma.
Huh. What would you do if you had your own scalpel of charisma?
What the Heck Does ‘Charisma’ even MEAN?
I’ve talked around a clear definition. There’s a reason for this: charisma has differently nuanced meanings, depending on the source you look at: Merriam Webster gives it two definitions:
- personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (such as a political leader)
- a special magnetic charm or appeal (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/charisma)
The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions as well:
- compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others
- a divinely conferred power or talent (https://www.lexico.com/definition/charisma)
The Cambridge Dictionary ALSO gives two definitions:
- a special power that some people have naturally that makes them able to influence other people and attract their attention and admiration
- the ability to attract the attention and admiration of others, and to be seen as a leader (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/charisma)
So: Three world-class English dictionaries, three sets of definitions. And look at the words used: “personal magic”, “special magnetic charm”, “compelling attractiveness”, “divinely conferred”, “special power” and “ability to attract”. Those are pretty non-linear if I do say so myself. There are hints of people “following” in each, too. But they don’t mean exactly the same thing, do they? So, if they don’t agree, why should any of us take sides? No need to die on this hill.
Look closely: what you don’t see is a whole lot of the overtly negative stuff. It’s when you get into the subtle variations in words like “power”, “influence”, “admiration”, and so on, that you begin to see where things can be interpreted as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
But we DO need some kind of common understanding because THIS IDEA AND SKILL SET MATTERS.
I propose we use the word charisma like this:
Charisma is the ability to authentically engage others in ways that result in the recipient experiencing positive self-perception as a consequence of the interaction.
This is just a fancy way of saying “making people feel good about themselves, but not by sucking up, kissing ass, or being fake, but by being interested, interesting, genuine and present.”
Works for me.
How Do You Know if Someone (or YOU!) has Charisma??
OK, let’s talk straight goods: most people feel that charisma is a good thing, especially when they have the charisma, or the charisma works on them; many people also feel it isn’t something they possess. It’s reserved for the Chris Hemsworths, Barack Obamas, Jennifer Lopezs, and Marilyn Monroes of the world. You have to be born with it, along with a generous helping of good looks.
Which, if we face it, isn’t in the cards for most of us. Most of us are solidly “ok”.
Good Looks and Style and Charisma - a Quick Word
Well, for one thing, good looks aren’t everything (and we all know that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is totally true. Except for Chris Hemsworth. I don’t think there’s a woman OR a man on this planet that doesn’t agree that he’s....well….you know). In fact, it’s more important you have your own style that encapsulates your authentic personality (think Andy Warhol, Amy Winehouse, Kate Middleton, and Samuel L. Jackson) than it is to be “attractive”, IMO.
It’s fair to say that none of these people were born dressing like this - sure, maybe they’d worked with stylists through the years, but what they had/have isn’t the invention of someone else: it’s the extension of who they are (or were). That’s the magic sauce.
We sense(d) that these individuals have something that is intrinsically unique - in other words, authentic, about how they present(ed) themselves to the world, and we respond to that. And this isn’t about us necessarily liking their style - it’s that we recognize that style is at play.
Does style matter when it comes to charisma? According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of “The Charisma Myth”, it most certainly does. How you look (like it or not) affects how people perceive and react to you. It’s not as simple as Birkin bags and Manolo Blahnik shoes, either. You can be wearing designer labels, and be regarded as inauthentic, and therefore uncharismatic. Hey, I don’t make the rules of humanity. Sadly.
Can style be explored, crafted, and learned, then? Absolutely. Check out my friend Lauren Messiah’s world at www.laurenmessiah.com for evidence. At least that’s one fewer thing for you to worry about with charisma!
If Charisma Doesn’t Equal Attractiveness...
...then what is it? Again, referencing the work of Fox Cabane, she identifies three key components:
She argues that these three concepts, in varying strengths, define charisma. Admittedly, these seem pretty abstract. How do you KNOW someone has “presence”, for instance?
Well, there’s actually a LOT of stuff that can actually be pinned down. Let’s have a look:
Basically, presence is being 100% here (or there, as the case may be). It means you truly listen, given your entire attention to a person, stave off distractions (including the ones in your head), ask thoughtful, curious questions (and don’t be precious about it, either: just be a human).
Your eyes are the key here, tied to a concept called micro expressions. As the most mobile (and potentially expressive) area of the human body, we’re hard-wired to monitor that area of people’s faces - and decide whether someone is really present or not.
Power can be resource-based, like money, influence, or position, but it is so much more than that, too. Because this is all about perception, changing how you take up and use space can send power messages just as effectively as dropping your platinum card “accidentally” (actually, that’s super-lame. Don’t do that.).
Think Don Draper/Jon Hamm.
This is often a tough one for us ladies because when we “take up space” by how we move, dress, and speak, we get flak. I’ll take this up more deeply in future blogs, and it will be getting lots of love in the TEEwithD digital courses, so never fear!
Think of warm lights versus cool lights - which one makes you feel cozy? Most people say “warm”, and it’s not a tough concept to grasp - after all, we already use the words ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ to denote how people act - “her warm smile” and “her cool demeanour” are instantly recognizable for English speakers. So, yes, “warmth” in charisma is related: it’s really just about how much you give the impression you like someone, and are therefore inclined to “have their back”.
This doesn’t mean a warm Michelle Obama meeting means she’s going to pay your mortgage.
To me, warmth is where the proverbial rubber hits the theoretical road. It’s not something that can be faked, not really. Humans are just too skilled at reading body language, and this is where warmth truly lives.
Now, this is a really quick-and-dirty breakdown of the ideas behind charisma, and the debates that rage in its midst. Trust me when I say there is a LOT more we could chat about.
Addressing the Elephant in the Room
But given the ephemeral definitions at the start, and this quite explicitly concrete set of “charisma symptoms” a la Fox Cabane, we’ve got an interesting question on our hands:
Are “charisma symptoms” a DESCRIPTIVE SET or a PRESCRIPTIVE SET?
To rephrase: is Fox Cabane simply describing something that exists “in the wild”, something people are born with?
Or…..and much more to my point….is it prescribing how to contract (Get! Come down with!) charisma?
In other words...CAN CHARISMA BE TAUGHT?!?
Wait for it….
But remember that it will have to be YOUR version of charisma. If you attempt to imitate, or “be like” someone else (including famous someone-else's), you’re doomed.
The learning required for charisma doesn’t START with presence, power, and warmth. It ENDS THERE.
If you want to know more about how you can START developing your own brand of charisma through exploring your core values, big vision, and own voice, get in touch.
Remember: you can have (or hone!) your charisma, and with a scalpel in hand, you can choose your path (as a surgeon, of course ;-).
Go forth, be amazing,
If you want to join a group of like-minded women who are ready to get on the starting block, on their own terms, then TEEwithD will be the place to be! - the launch of the digital, global platform will allow you to learn, laugh, lead and leverage your greatest strengths as a person and a speaker, in pursuit of your biggest dreams (oh, and we’re out to help each other change the world, too!). Sign up here to be part of the “in crowd”!