Is Charisma Just Knowing How to Sound Smart?

I am still struggling, after our examination of charismatic leadership, to separate charisma from emotional manipulation.  Although charisma is often believed to be an intangible quality that leaders either have or don’t have, it can be honed.  Groups of humans respond fairly predictably.  Can’t leaders just learn to tap into those patterns?  Whether consciously or unconsciously, aren’t they then just playing on people’s emotions to get them on their side?  If it is conscious, is this authentic leadership?

In The Secret Language of Leadership, Stephen Denning describes this as good communication:

“What I’ve seen time again is that massive differences in the impact of leadership communication can be achieved by paying attention to the tiniest details of the words that are used, the patterns they form, the order in which the patterns are deployed.  Successful leaders communicate very differently from the traditional, abstract approach to communication.  In all kinds of settings, they communicate by following a hidden pattern: first, they get attention.  Then they stimulate desire, and only then do they reinforce with reasons” (Denning, 2007, p. 27).

I think we can agree that sounding compelling and smart can only take you so far if you do not actually have the skills necessary to carry out the job.  Denning does go on to make the key distinctions that “successful leaders don’t stop with a one-time communication” and that “words alone won’t work” (Denning, 2007, p. 27).  But, to Will Stephen’s point in “How to Sound Smart in Your Tedx Talk,” I also suspect that we can all think of a time when someone’s presentation skills took them further than the quality of the information alone would have.  Sometimes people who interview well turn out to be expensive hiring mistakes.  There’s definitely a line but everyone’s gut may draw it a little differently.  Followers of a charismatic leader draw the line based on the degree to which they believe the leader to be motivated by self-interest.  But a little charisma can’t hurt, right?

Before radio,  the leaders of our country did not seem to need charisma at all and now we have entire genres of self-help books devoted to teaching corporate employees the art of personal magnetism.  Are we approaching a time when more and more charisma will be expected of all leaders?  Or is charisma just helpful as a component of strong communication and relationship building?

Denning, S. (2007). The secret language of leadership: How leaders inspire action through narrative. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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