21st century style charisma can be learnt

Nelson Mandela is South Africa's greatest example of natural charisma.

BLUE-chip résumés, MBA degrees and unblemished track records are not always enough to assure promotion and successful job applications. Recruitment specialists agree that executives who lack personal charisma are often overtaken by their more magnetic colleagues on the way up the corporate ladder. And the higher up the ladder you go, the tougher the competition becomes.

Good news then, for many, is the evolution of traditional, western-style charisma into a new, 21st century form of appeal, which is becoming the preferential route to effective and inspirational leadership. More encouraging still, is the fact that they say it is a form of charisma that can be learnt.

Charisma is described by psychologist James Hillman, in his book Kinds Of Power: A Guide To Its Intelligence, as a mysterious kind of power “that does not belong to human persons but enhances them with an otherworldly charm that is best expressed by the term ‘star’”.

“Nelson Mandela is surely SA’s greatest example of natural charisma,” says Somerset West-based executive coach, Edith Sievers. “Significantly, his is what I see as a contemporary form of charisma. Madiba’s response to the 2010 Soccer World Cup announcement demonstrated this. Despite his obvious delight that SA had won the bid, his reaction was one of quiet humility and respect for the competing countries. This gentle mannerism gives his particular brand of charisma a deep, sympathetic quality that has not, up until recently, always been synonymous with charisma.”

The traditional western understanding of charisma – which one might associate with people like Jack Welch, Clem Sunter, Tokyo Sexwale, Mark Shuttleworth, Bob Skinstad and Trevor Manuel – typically includes traits like confidence, eloquence, the ability to affect other people positively, poise, good physical presence (even animal magnetism), a winning smile and a knuckle-crunching handshake. It is historically a more masculine characteristic than feminine.

Sievers says that leadership styles are becoming more reflective, self-effacing and less autocratic. As a result, the traits that have traditionally been seen to combine to create charisma are changing.

ABSA Group chief executive, Maria Ramos is someone who demonstrates ‘contemporary charisma’. She is a business leader whose style, while compelling in a charismatic sense, is more reflective and modest than that of many leaders who were identified as charismatic in the past. Ramos has, from all accounts, the clear vision, ability to articulate that vision, capacity to inspire others and emotional intensity typically associated with charismatic leaders. Yet the calm manner in which she reveals these qualities is more characteristic of a new style of charismatic business leadership.

In his book Charisma: Seven Keys To Developing The Magnetism That Leads To Success, Tony Alessandra says charisma is not genetic or out of anyone’s grasp. Sievers agrees and says that, while it may not necessarily be called ‘charisma’ – ‘presence’ appears to be the preferred word – many executive coaches work with clients to develop charismatic qualities.

“The more introspective version of charisma is attuned to the principles of executive coaching, where we assist clients to self-awareness and help them identify limitations and ‘blind spots’ so that they can realise their full potential,” she says. “Where appropriate, we do not help clients build an audacious or flamboyant style of charisma, but rather a quieter, more thoughtful version, which is in line with our reflective approach.”

Alessandra writes that charisma is simply “the ability to affect other people positively”. He suggests that one way to build your charisma quotient is to have a passionately held vision that captures people’s attention. The greater your enthusiasm for your vision, the more likely you are to persuade others of its worth.

Charismatic leaders, he says, connect emotionally with people. They show empathy and make others feel important. When others speak, they truly listen, rather than working out their response in their heads, as many do. They learn about the personal lives of people who work with them and create a sense of working alongside their team, rather than in a large office in the corner.

“Certainly, in any success equation, personal magnetism is not the only variable. Ability, integrity and credibility also must be present,” says Alessandra. “But in today’s competitive market for top jobs, charisma matters. There is no question that in your career you will stand out above your peers if you have more charisma. You will be able to inspire and motivate others more.”

Sievers might add that it is important too, to ensure that you develop a 21st Century mode of charisma. You know, less of the knuckle-crunching handshake and more of the forward leaning, tilt headed attentiveness.

How to increase your quota of charisma:

• Focus on others, not yourself
• Have a passionately held vision
• Learn to articulate that vision compellingly
• Show genuine empathy and listen carefully
• Make others feel important

(First published in Business Day.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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