Below is the first of two excerpts from “The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism,” by Olivia Fox Cabane (Portfolio, March 2012). The publisher describes the book as a mix of “stories, sound science, and practical tools. Cabane takes a hard-science approach to [the] topic, covering what charisma actually is, how it is learned, what its side effects are, and how to handle them.”
Marilyn Monroe wanted to prove a point. It was a sunny summer day in New York City, 1955. With a magazine editor and a photographer in tow, Marilyn walked down into Grand Central Terminal. Though it was the middle of a busy workday and the platform was packed with people, not a single person noticed her as she stood waiting for the subway. As the photographer’s camera clicked, she boarded the train and rode along quietly in a corner of the car. Nobody recognized her.
Marilyn wanted to show that just by deciding to, she could be either glamorous Marilyn Monroe or plain Norma Jean Baker. On the subway, she was Norma Jean. But when she resurfaced onto the busy New York sidewalks, she decided to turn into Marilyn. She looked around and teasingly asked her photographer: “Do you want to see her?” There were no grand gestures — she just “fluffed up her hair, and struck a pose.”
With this simple shift, she suddenly became magnetic. Time stood still, as did the people around her, who blinked in amazement as they suddenly recognized the star standing in their midst. In an instant Marilyn was engulfed by fans, and “it took several shoving, scary minutes” for the photographer to help her to escape the growing crowd.
Charisma has always been an intriguing and controversial topic. When I tell people at conferences or cocktail parties that I “teach charisma,” they immediately perk up and often exclaim, “But I thought it was something that you either have or don’t.” Some see it as an unfair advantage, others are eager to learn, everyone is fascinated. And they are right to be so. Charismatic people impact the world, whether they’re starting new projects, new companies, or new empires.
What will charisma do for you?
Imagine what your life would be like if you knew that the moment you entered a room, people would immediately take notice, want to hear what you have to say, and be eager to earn your approval.
For charismatic people, this is a way of life. Charisma gets people to like you, trust you, and want to be led by you. It can determine whether you’re seen as a follower or a leader, whether your ideas get adopted, and how effectively your projects are implemented. Like it or not, charisma can make the world go round — it makes people want to do what you want them to do.
Charisma is, of course, critical in business. Whether you’re applying for a new job or want to advance within your organization, it will help you achieve your goal. Multiple concurring studies indicate that charismatic people receive higher performance ratings and are viewed as more effective by their superiors and subordinates.
If you’re a leader, or aspire to be one, charisma matters. It gives you a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining the very best talent. Research shows that those following charismatic leaders perform better, experience their work as more meaningful, and have more trust in their leaders than those following effective but non-charismatic leaders.
As Wharton School business professor Robert House notes, charismatic leaders “cause followers to become highly committed to the leader’s mission, to make significant personal sacrifices, and to perform above and beyond the call of duty.”
Charisma is what enables one successful salesman to sell five times more than his colleagues in the same region. It’s the difference between entrepreneurs who have investors banging on their doors and those who have to beg the bank for a loan.
It’s not magic, it’s learned behaviors
Contrary to popular belief, people are not simply born charismatic — innately magnetic from birth. If charisma were an inherent attribute, charismatic people would always be captivating, and that’s just not the case. Even for the most engaging superstar, charisma can be present one moment and absent the next. Marilyn Monroe could “turn off” her charisma like flipping a switch and go completely unnoticed. To turn her charisma back on, she simply changed her body language.
As extensive research in recent years has shown, charisma is the result of specific nonverbal behaviors, not an inherent or magical personal quality. This is one of the reasons why charisma levels fluctuate: its presence depends on whether or not someone is exhibiting these behaviors.
Have you ever had the experience of feeling totally confident, master of a situation? A moment when people seemed impressed by you — even just one moment of the people around you going “Wow!” We don’t necessarily think of these experiences as charisma, or consider ourselves charismatic, because we assume that charismatic people are magnetic every instant of every day. They aren’t.
One of the reasons charisma is mistakenly held to be innate is that, like many other social skills, charismatic behaviors are generally learned early in life. In fact, people usually don’t consciously realize they are learning them. They’re just trying new behaviors, seeing the results, and refining them. Eventually, the behaviors become instinctive.
Countless well-known charismatic figures worked hard to gain their charisma, increasing it step by step. But because we come to know them at the peak of their charisma, it can be hard to believe these superstars weren’t always so impressive.
Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, considered one of the most charismatic CEOs of the decade, did not start out that way. In fact, if you watch his earliest presentations, you’ll see that he came across as bashful and awkward, veering from overly dramatic to downright nerdy. Jobs progressively increased his level of charisma over the years, and you can see the gradual improvement in his public appearances.
Charisma has come under the scrutiny of sociologists, psychologists, and cognitive and behavioral scientists. It has been studied in multiple ways, from clinical laboratory experiments and cross-sectional and longitudinal survey research to qualitative interpretative analysis. The subjects of these studies have been presidents, military leaders, students of all ages, and business executives from low-level managers to CEOs. Thanks to such research, we now understand charisma as a set of behaviors.
What does charismatic behavior look like?
When we first meet someone, we instinctively assess whether that person is a potential friend or foe and whether they have the power to enact those intentions. Power and intentions are what we’re aiming to assess. “Could you move mountains for me? And would you care to do so?” To answer the first question, we try to assess how much power he or she has. To answer the second question, we try to assess how much he or she likes us. When you meet a charismatic person, you get the impression that they have a lot of power and they like you a lot.
The equation that produces charisma is actually fairly simple. All you have to do is give the impression that you possess both high power and high warmth, since charismatic behaviors project a combination of these two qualities. “Fight or flight?” is the power question. “Friend or foe?” is the warmth question.
A final dimension underlies both of these qualities: presence. When people describe their experience of seeing charisma in action, whether they met Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, or the Dalai Lama, they often mention the individual’s extraordinary “presence.”
Presence is the single most requested aspect of charisma when I’m coaching executives. They want to increase their executive presence or boardroom presence. And they’re right to focus on it: presence turns out to be the real core component of charisma, the foundation upon which all else is built. When you’re with a charismatic master — take Bill Clinton, for example — you not only feel his power and a sense of warm engagement, you also feel that he’s completely here with you, in this moment. Present.
Becoming more charismatic does involve work — work that is sometimes hard, uncomfortable, and even daunting. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, both in terms of how you will relate to yourself and how others will relate to you. It involves managing your mental ecosystem, understanding and attending to your own needs, as well as knowing which behaviors inspire others to see you as charismatic and learning how to project them.
Charisma training is practical magic: unique knowledge, drawn from a variety of sciences, revealing what charisma really is and how it works. The world will become your lab, and every time you meet someone, you’ll get an opportunity to experiment. You learn how to become more influential, more persuasive, and more inspiring. You learn how to exude charisma — the ability to move through a room and have people go, “Wow, who’s that?”
Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of “The Charisma Myth.” She has lectured at Stanford, Yale, Harvard, MIT and the United Nations, and she is a frequent keynote speaker and executive coach to the leadership of Fortune 500 companies.
In the next excerpt, Cabane will debunk some common misconceptions about charisma and explain why she believes that anyone can significantly increase their personal charisma.