Charisma is an individual’s ability to attract and influence other people. While it is often described as a mysterious quality that one either has or doesn't have, some experts argue that the skills of charismatic people can be learned and cultivated.
Charisma brings to mind powerful business leaders, rock stars on stage, politicians at the podium. Yet charisma’s most fundamental power may lie in the effect it has on everyone else. The ability to move others is an asset for leading people toward shared objectives. Charisma can also have a dark side, insofar as narcissistic individuals and predators use their powers to manipulate others.
Charisma is a personal quality, evident in the way an individual communicates to others, that makes someone more influential. This power to attract attention and influence people can be embodied in the way someone speaks, what someone says, and how someone looks when communicating.
A variety of factors can make a person charismatic. They include but are not limited to: confidence, exuberance, optimism, expressive body language, and a passionate voice. People with charisma are often enthusiastic and speak with assertiveness.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama are examples of famous leaders widely considered charismatic—skilled at delivering messages that united and inspired those who followed them. Business leaders, performers, and others, from Oprah Winfrey to Bono, could also be called charismatic. And so could people like Adolf Hitler, who have used charisma to lead followers to destructive ends.
Charisma can help rouse followers or team members to band together in pursuit of goals. It can infuse group efforts with a sense of meaning and purpose, reminding everyone of the values they share—often through the use of symbols and storytelling. The specific goals and values can vary across places and social groups.
Not every leader is highly charismatic, and some research has even suggested that business leaders with the highest ratings on charisma are not necessarily the most effective. In a variety of leadership contexts, however, charisma can be valuable and may help instill confidence in and a sense of connection to the leader.
While narcissism and charisma are not the same, narcissistic people have been described as having a “charismatic air,” which may relate to the outward self-confidence or boldness that many narcissists exhibit.
Like many characteristics, charisma is not something you simply have or don’t have. There are different ways of defining what counts as charisma, and some people possess certain—or sometimes, many—charismatic qualities in above-average proportions, from a talent for emotional storytelling to beaming confidence.
While charisma is sometimes described as a “gift,” some experts have sought to break it down into specific characteristics and argue that it can be learned. Many people, not just celebrities and presidents, use their charisma to stand out from the crowd.
A variety of specific characteristics and techniques have been described by charisma researchers as communicatory elements that could increase charisma. They include tactics such as using metaphors and lists in talking about issues, telling stories that capture attention, and expressing shared emotions and moral conviction, as well as using gestures, facial expressions, and other nonverbals to express emotions and make an impression.
Charisma may come more naturally to some people—certain personality traits, like extroversion, could help. But even highly charismatic people may have learned from role models along the way, and some experts believe that charismatic behaviors can be trained.
Practice may make someone more charismatic, but “faking” charismatic leadership could ultimately fall short if a person who speaks convincingly fails to actually uphold the values he communicates.
In a sense, charisma may be in the eye of the beholder. While certain individuals are inarguably effective at inspiring people to listen to and follow them, charisma is about communicating shared values, and a charismatic speaker’s message will not resonate with or stir the emotions of all people to the same degree.