There is a great talk by Olivia Fox on “Building Your Personal Charisma”. What is fascinating is that she describes charisma as a set of behaviors that can be learned and executed. It’s not intrinsic, genetic or inborn as we tend to believe. This is a pivotal lesson about management and knowledge work in general – it’s a set of behaviors that can be learned and executed. Peter Drucker’s basic premise in “The Effective Executive” – probably the best management book ever – is that an executive’s job is to be effective and effectiveness can be learned.
Olivia says that we tend to believe that charisma – and similar attributes like leadership – are innate because they are shaped by circumstances very early in our lives. But they are just learnt – or not learnt – early. They are not innate. They can be learnt at any stage and adopted. Anyone can be charismatic – at least to some extent.
This is interesting because charisma or personal charm is a fundamentally important skill in a manager’s life. It affects how influential, persuasive and inspirational he is. It determines how effectively he can get things done, specifically as he moves higher in an organization. Her talk went over many aspects of charisma, one being “Charisma of Presence“. It’s the ability for one to ensure that they are perceived to be completely engaged and focused on their audience – whether its one person or a packed hall. The conversation goes awry when one perceives the other as not being fully attentive – for example by their facial expressions or distracted demeanor (which are nothing but behaviors). On the contrary, one being completely present has a persuasive effect making the other person feel important and relevant. At the end of the day, charisma is just a set of simple behaviors – listening attentively, not interrupting, avoiding peeking at your blackberry, staying engrossed in the conversation and adopting facial expressions, gestures and body language to support that. A set of opposite behaviors will make a person normally considered charming and charismatic completely ineffective and even rude and demeaning. We judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their behaviors.
Two interesting anecdotes from the lecture: Two candidates for prime minister of Great Britain, Gladstone and Disraeli, in late 1800s dined with the same woman on successive evenings. The press naturally asked her of her opinion. She said with Gladstone she felt as if he was the smartest person in Britain. With Disraeli she felt as if she was the smartest person in Britain. Disraeli’s charismatic presence was completely focused on his audience – and contributed to a successful campaign. He won.
A US Republican once said about Bill Clinton, a highly charismatic personality: “I hated him before I met him; I hated him after I met him; but boy I simply loved the guy when I was with him”. Communication is what the listener does and a charismatic person simply engages the other person with a set of charismatic behaviors – making them feel “as the only person in the room”.
The talk is worth a listen – with very simple tools to increase your charisma. One was to feel the sensation in your toes for a split second. This makes your brain parse your body from head to toe, making you aware of your entire self and helping you to be completely available in the present.
I thought of the fateful 1992 US presidential debate when George Bush made the fatal mistake of looking at his watch to check time during the debate. That went bad with the voters and made him appear as a president who has “lost his touch”. The mere act – focusing on something in future – simply showed the audience that he was not completely with them in present. It was for a split second but enough to cause the damage.
So next time, when you are in a One-on-One or a team meeting and feel like checking your cell phone or email or thinking of something not relevant to the people and place around you – you may consider feeling the sensation in your toes!