Charisma: Authenticity or Learned Behaviour?

Can you learn charisma, or is it an innate gift?

Because it is so intimately linked with power, the distribution of charisma was closely guarded for millennia. Now many seek it.

Charisma was originally linked with the power of persuasion, or the mastery of arguing content originally codified by Artistotle’s The Art of Rhetoric, that was the MBA of antiquity. Then, advances in psychology allowed leaders to harness the powers of myth, archetype and unconscious drive in shaping human destiny. Now, social science shows modern communicators how outcomes can be radically shaped by mastery of verbal and non-verbal styles.

What hasn’t changed over the millennia is that people with true charisma have some intangible quality that sets them apart. This special “je ne sais quoi” means that two people presenting identical content, and perhaps even exhibiting superficially similar behaviours, may elicit radically differing levels of acceptance by their audiences. No wonder charisma remains so enigmatic – and continues to invite different answers to the question of how to acquire it.

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One school of thought – let’s call them “the Behaviourists” – proposes that it’s  possible to become charismatic by learning certain standardised types of behavior. One proponent describes her method as “fake it till you make it.” Let’s name the other approach the “Energetic” school of thought. This seeks more natural and more authentic ways of revealing the charisma that is hidden in each one of us.

Behaviourists suggest that by training “power poses”  such as arms-akimbo and other status-enhancing techniques, it’s possible to transform the personality to reflect new, socially standardised concepts of personal power.

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Yet this behaviourist track contains a deep conceptual flaw. If having charisma means “being different,” then all those learning the same techniques will look and sound alike, so rapidly becoming impervious to each others’ charisma. If all the would-be alpha males attending a meeting have been trained up to adopt exactly the same “power pose,” then who will emerge victorious?

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Nonetheless, social scientists have proven that artificially adopting certain behaviours will – quite independently of circumstance or content – help to balance our power-inducing hormones. Certain gestures raise the body’s levels of stress-inducing testosterone while simultaneously lowering stress-promoting cortisol. This may create an aura of power to help waft us through alien or stressful circumstances like job interviews or public presentations.

So a small industry has grown up around the observation and codifying of Charisma Leadership Tactics or CLT. These hold that certain types of body language – notably the wide-open, expansive gestures also visible in dominant primates – will create stronger and more positive impressions, regardless of content.

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By contrast, folded, collapsed or submissive gestures drain power and so lower charisma.Keleman1

Research published by Harvard Business School academics suggests that some business leaders have learned by trial and error what it takes to increase their persuasive powers, and to gain acceptance for propositions for which empirical evidence may still be lacking (the ability to sell a compelling “vision of the future”).

A trio of researchers from the University of Lausanne carried out blind tests with students who were invited to watch and then grade presentations from speakers before and after they had received CLT training.

The arguments presented at a 2012 TED talk by Harvard social scientist Amy Cuddy in favour of the “fake it till you make it” style of positive reinforcement, are certainly powerful. In experiments, the reactions of grad students to techniques such as “executives” parking their  feet on the office desk were measurable.

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Likewise, the premise behind The Charisma Myth: Master the Art of Personal Magnetism by the US coach Olivia Fox Cabane, is that the way we hold our bodies can change the way our minds operate. So if we change our bodies we will change our minds and therefore positively enhance our life outcomes.

What’s needed, according to the approaches favoured by Cuddy, Cabane and others, is rigorous adherence to personal disciplines of “body-retraining” by following certain tips and tricks. These might include star-spreading our arms like victorious footballers, putting our feet on the desk, practicing slower speaking, powerful handshakes, even briefly ‘tuning-out’ at parties to enhance focus and mystique. These tactics will, we’re told, result in greater “presence.”

Scoring  by social scientists  after use of such tactics detects rapid learning. But like many other “easy come” techniques, these may also prove to be “easy go” if not grounded in personality.

All such approaches are based on the tactical premise that it’s necessary to adopt habits that are unnatural to us and to eventually become somebody quite different, if we are ever to become truly charismatic. Parts of our own personality will, it appears, have to be discarded along the way.

And as we work busily through the exercise plan to acquire this new “third party” charisma, what happens to our innate charisma? How will those around us observe the change? Will colleagues, family friends or investors detect that something artificial  and perhaps insincere is going on?

That’s why we need to look at the “Energetic” approach. So called because it’s based on mapping the energies we possess, and learning how to apply them most fruitfully. This  starts from a radically different premise – everyone is charismatic.  The challenge is to uncover what’s there, not add techniques.

So how do we go about uncovering this authentic charisma hidden within? The process of first mapping, then measuring, and going on to manage our own natural assets is what makes up the original methodology we call Communicate Charisma.

We believe that, just like a certain premium lager, it reaches the parts of the communicative persona that CLTs don’t truly reach. And because it’s based on being truly yourself, you won’t ever find somebody else doing exactly the same thing. Find out how in the next instalment.

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