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Is Charisma a Gift?

Think of someone—a famous politician or a childhood friend—who is charismatic. Someone, who lights up rooms and hearts with their mere presence. What is behind their allure? Their looks? The way they move and talk? Their personality and attitude? Their accomplishments?
Is Charisma a Gift?

Think of someone—a famous politician or a childhood friend—who is charismatic. Someone, who lights up rooms and hearts with their mere presence. What is behind their allure? Their looks? The way they move and talk? Their personality and attitude? Their accomplishments? 

Charisma, which in Greek means "a divine gift," is often veiled in mystery. A century ago, sociologist Max Weber wrote about charisma as a "supernatural" quality that was reserved for a lucky few. It's ambiguous and undefinable, yet we recognize its spell easily—whether on our screens or in our living rooms. 

John Antonakis from the University of Lausanne has been investigating charisma for over a decade. He is in the business of demystifying and democratizing charisma, he says. While dissecting something commonly deemed mystical to its bare components may seem like turning on the lights during a magic show, Antonakis has come to a startling conclusion: Charisma can be learned. Rather than it being a sacred endowment reserved for "special people," most of us can boost our charisma levels with the help of a few tricks. Moreover, these tricks—known as charismatic leadership tactics (CLTs)—have been shown to be effective as much in research laboratories as in the real world: in classrooms, boardrooms, and presidential elections. 

Together with his colleagues, Antonakis investigates how the way we speak and what we say drives much of charisma. The premise is simple: if a person (let's call them X) wants to ignite the charismatic effect, he needs an observer (let's call them Y). To win the attention, trust, and reverence of Y, X must communicate his ideas in a way that will help them understand his message, relate to it, and remember it. In other words, X must form an emotional connection with Y. This is where the tactics come in. By fertilizing their speech with metaphors, stories, and images and by delivering it with the right voice and gestures, speakers can ignite their X-factors and exude effortless charm in the eyes of their audience.

Although science has come a long way in exploring the alchemy of charisma, there still remains a lot to uncover of her secrets. Yes, it's astounding to gain insights into the psychology of inspiration; to see how the Aristotelian philosophy of ethos, pathos, and logos prevail in capturing spectators; to stock our toolboxes with tricks for communicating, connecting and influencing; to learn how to rouse emotions, instill dreams and change lives with our words. And yet, one can't help but wish that some things—about our humanity, our attractions, the spells we can cast on each other—stay safely inexplicable. Just like a magician and his mysteries. Just like Charis, the goddess of charm in Greek mythology, and her grace.

What makes someone charismatic? 

Charisma can come from different sources including looks, behavior, and speech. Actors like Marilyn Monroe are charismatic, initially, because of their looks. Athletes may appear charismatic because of their exceptional abilities on the field. Even knowledge about someone's previous performance, such as their accomplishments or creativity, can make them appear charismatic (e.g., Steve Jobs). A lot depends on how well you know the person. If you don't have much information about them, then looks and performance signals play a big role. If you do—like with candidates during an election—then speech matters more and could even override looks. 

Is charisma a personality trait, a skill, or a gift?

It's a combination of nature and nurture. Whereas some people may have an innate ability to be more charismatic, Antonakis views charisma as "an emotional, symbolic and value-based leader signaling." When we first meet others, we rely on these signals to communicate our competence and confidence and to close the gap in our understanding of each other. These signaling mechanisms are trainable. Some people have learned various tactics through experiences and role models and use them without even realizing it. Others need more practice. Although it helps to have intelligence and extraversion, having magnetism has a lot to do with speaking in a way that will attract the attention of others. As to whether charisma is a "gift," because researchers can study charisma scientifically, measure and train it, and because computer programs can now identify how well people use rhetorical skills and body language, Antonakis deems it more of a learnable (rather than divine) kind of gift.  


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