‘Is a perception of you that can only be defined by someone else. It’s the unique effect you have on other people made up of energy (sparkle and forcefulness), self-esteem (substance), image (presentation) and communication in the widest sense (speaking, listening, making people feel special). It turns heads when you walk into a room, draws people to you, makes them want to be your friend and leaves them with the imprint and feel of you in their memory.’
This was my winning entry for the bussinessballs.com charisma definition a while ago now. It’s still OK as a generic definition, but since I wrote it I’ve thought a lot more about charisma, what it is and how to develop it. I’m still thinking, but here are my thoughts on what it is so far, for what they are worth.
Charisma vs Presence
Charisma, it seems to me, is similar but not the same as presence. Presence can be characterised by the first part of the definition: … the unique effect you have on other people made up of energy (sparkle and forcefulness), self-esteem (substance), image (presentation) and communication in the widest sense (speaking, listening, making people feel special)’, but not necessarily all of the last sentence. Presence turns heads when you walk into a room, but doesn’t necessarily draw people to you or make them want to be your friend. Presence has a dark side and is not always magnetic – which I think Charsima always is – and can be repellent at the other extreme (as in ‘a dark, brooding presence’ – Heathcliffe for example). Presence is sometimes an expression of self-confidence and how the person feels about himself/herself. It can also be purely physical – striking looks, booming voice or just size. So no, they aren’t the same.
Charisma vs Charm
Charm has all sorts of connotations. For example, Chris my partner, thinks of it as greasy and obsequious. I don’t. I use it here to mean some extra, magical quality that some people have. It can be turned on and off and it’s essentially good and always attractive. It’s not the same a presence or charisma as you may not be able to see that someone has it when they are in a crowd of people. With presence
and charisma, you can. I think charm is an intimate thing, to do with connecting with people, that sometimes is only evident when the person talks to you or looks at you. It makes other people feel special, makes them want to be your friend and leaves them with the imprint and feel of you in their memory. So no, charm is not the same as charisma.
Does presence + charm = Charisma?
Well no. And this is what’s been bugging me. There’s a biography out by the guy who was Nixon’s aide or whatever they call them over in the US (sorry, don’t
remember his name). In it, he writes about the time when he and Nixon went to meet Mau Tse Tung. He describes Mau as having immense charisma – very, very scary. You see how this little story has thrown my thoughts into maelstrom. Because yes, that’s charisma, too isn’t it? In the Max Weber/leadership* sense rather than in the smaller-scale, domestic, charming sense. This kind of charisma is
to do with power. Not just power by itself, but being given power by people who believe you have it. It kind of pumps you up. Weber himself points out that leadership charisma only lasts as long as people’s belief in it does. So it does have something to do with power bestowed on you by other people.
*Charisma as defined by Max Weber, political economist and sociologist, 1864-1920
a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’
from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.
More thoughts on Charisma
OK. Let’s look at it another way. Here am I trying to define charisma – not to find out what it is but to find a way of expressing what I know. By trying to describe it, what I’m doing is unpacking and identifying the complicated strands and shades of meaning that make up my own understanding of it. In the process I find out more.
So perhaps another way round would be to identify people who have it and unpack its components from that list.
Here’s a really simple exercise to help tap into intuition and judgement. I’ve used it when I haven’t been sure of how I feel about a certain aspect of something or someone.
You do have to be clear of your terms of reference or it won’t work. It’s good because you’re not distracted by other considerations – whether you like the people, approve of them or anything else. You’re focusing on just one aspect.
1. Start with the aspect you want to know about (charisma)
2. Think of the opposite attribute (‘no charisma’ is good enough)
3. Think about what charisma means to you and get the feel for it
4. Then say the names of people you know or know about (I’m thinking famous or at any rate, in the public eye), focusing on ‘charisma or no charisma’, making a very quick decision about each one. Yes or no will do once you’ve got your focus.
You may want to start off with people you’re sure about before you get to the trickier ones, just to get you in flow with the exercise. It’s the trickier ones that stretch you, make you dig deeper into your intuition and can also surprise you.
I started with politicians: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Thatcher, Ming/Menzies Campbell, Alistair Darling etc
So I’m thinking: Blair – yes, Brown – no, Cameron – yes, Thatcher- yes, Campbell – no, Darling – no.
To get the definition, go through your ‘yes or no’ list and look at what they have or don’t have that made you say yes or no.
However, in this case, something is not right. I’m pretty sure that if I met Gordon Brown, Ming/Menzies Campbell or Alistair Darling in person, my view would change. Even the most uncharismatic famous or important person would have some sort of presence or charisma in the flesh by virtue of their authority and the power/importance ascribed to them by other people, including me.
It doesn’t seem quite right on another front, either, because I’m missing information. I know that people can have stage presence and have no personal presence and vice versa. As I’ve never met any of the people on my list face to face, I don’t know whether this is or isn’t true of them. I think, then, that with this list, I’m talking about stage presence.
And before he was Lib-dem leader and savaged by a public baying for youth, I liked Ming/Menzies on the radio – he had radio presence.
So I do the exercise with family members and friends. As I do this, I realise that I’m concerned with personal presence. I think this is not the same as charisma, it’s more like charm (see above).
So I’m now contemplating 3 kinds of presence:
- personal presence – a sort of small-scale but compelling charisma/charm that ordinary people might have. People notice them when they come into a room etc.
- stage/camera presence – you can have that with or without personal presence and all shades in between. I saw Prince at the 02 arena a few years ago and although I was right up on the highest balcony, his tiny faraway figure crackled with a kind of electrical charge. Some actors and singers have more of it offstage than on – fairly unassuming offstage, then they light up on stage. Not that I think Prince is either very large, even close to, or unassuming…
- charisma – more like the Weber definition (see above). Importance and presence that includes the trappings of power – as much to do with an accretion of other people’s perceptions as with an inherent quality, all of which builds into iconic status.