Why leadership requires charisma – and how you can learn it

Leadership roles require charisma – the ability to communicate a clear, visionary and inspirational message that captivates and motivates an audience. So how do you learn charisma?

It’s not all innate; it’s a learnable skill or, rather, a set of skills. Our research indicates that anyone trained in what we call charismatic leadership tactics, or CLTs, can become more influential, trustworthy and leaderlike in the eyes of others.

What is charisma?

Charisma is rooted in values and feelings. It’s influence born of the alchemy that Aristotle called the logos, the ethos and the pathos. That is, to persuade others, you must use powerful and reasoned rhetoric, establish personal and moral credibility, and then rouse followers’ emotions and passions. If a leader can do those three things well, he can then tap into the hopes and ideals of followers, give them a sense of purpose and inspire them to achieve great things.

Let’s be clear: Leaders need technical expertise to win the trust of followers, manage operations and set strategy; they also benefit from the ability to punish and reward. But the most effective leaders layer charismatic leadership on top of transactional and instrumental leadership to achieve their goals.

In our research, we have identified a dozen key CLTs. Nine of them are verbal: metaphors, similes and analogies; stories and anecdotes; contrasts; rhetorical questions; three-part lists; expressions of moral conviction; reflections of the group’s sentiments; the setting of high goals; and conveying confidence that they can be achieved. Three tactics are nonverbal: animated voice, facial expressions and gestures. We have found that people who use these CLTs appropriately can unite followers around a vision in a way that others can’t.

Connect, compare and contrast

Charismatic speakers help listeners understand, relate to and remember a message. A powerful way to do this is by using metaphors, similes and analogies. Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of the metaphor. In his “I Have a Dream” speech he likened the U.S. Constitution to “a promissory note” guaranteeing the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all people, but noted that America had instead given its black citizens “a bad check,” one that had come back marked “insufficient funds.” Everyone knows what it means to receive a bad check. The message is crystal clear and easy to retain.

Contrasts are another key CLT because they combine reason and passion; they clarify your position by pitting it against the opposite, often to dramatic effect. Think of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In our experience, contrasts are one of the easiest tactics to learn and use, and yet they aren’t used enough.

Engage and distill

Rhetorical questions might seem hackneyed, but charismatic leaders use them all the time to encourage engagement. Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, once used three rhetorical questions to explain what led her to help start the social responsibility movement. The thinking, she said, “was really simple: How do you make business kinder? How do you embed it in the community? How do you make community a social purpose for business?”

Three-part lists are another old trick of effective persuasion because they distill any message into key takeaways. Why three? Because most people can remember three things, three is sufficient to provide proof of a pattern and three gives an impression of completeness.

Show integrity, authority and passion

Expressions of moral conviction and statements that reflect the sentiments of the group establish your credibility by revealing the quality of your character to your listeners and making them identify and align themselves with you. At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill brilliantly captured the feelings of the British people and also conveyed a spirit of honor, courage and compassion. He said: “This

is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. … There we stood, alone. The lights went out, and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle.”

Another CLT, which helps charismatic leaders demonstrate passion – and inspire it in their followers – is setting high goals. But one must also convey confidence that the goals can be achieved. Take Ray, an engineer, addressing his team after a setback: “The deadline the CEO gave us is daunting. Other teams would be right to tremble at the knees, but we are not just another team. I know you can rise to the challenge. … Let’s commit to do what it takes to get the job done: We have the smarts. We have the experience. All we need is the will, and that’s something only great teams have.” Passion cannot emerge unless the leader truly believes that the vision and strategic goal can be reached.

The three nonverbal cues – expressions of voice, body and face – are also key to charisma. They don’t come naturally to everyone, however, and they are the most culturally sensitive tactics: What’s perceived as too much passion in certain contexts might be perceived as too muted in others. But they are nonetheless important to learn and practice because they are easier for your followers to process than the verbal CLTs, and they help you hold people’s attention by punctuating your speech.

Putting it all into practice

Now that you’ve learned the CLTs, how do you start using them? Simple: Preparation and practice. When you’re mapping out a speech or a presentation, plan to incorporate the tactics and rehearse them. We also encourage leaders to think about them before one-on-one conversations or team meetings in which they need to be persuasive. The idea is to arm yourself with a few key CLTs that feel comfortable to you and therefore will come out spontaneously – or at least look as if they did. The goal isn’t to employ all the tactics in every conversation but to use a balanced combination. With time and practice, they will start to come out on the fly.

If you think you can’t improve because you’re just not naturally charismatic, you’re wrong. The managers with the lowest initial charisma ratings in our studies were able to significantly narrow the gap between themselves and their peers to whom the tactics came naturally. No amount of training or practice will turn you into Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr. But the CLTs can make you more charismatic in the eyes of your followers, and that will invariably make you a more effective leader.

John Antonakis is a professor at the University of Lausanne; he consults regularly to companies on leadership development. Marika Fenley has a Ph.D. in management focusing on gender and leadership from the University of Lausanne. Sue Liechti has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Lausanne and is an organisational development consultant.

© Harvard Business Review.

This article first appeared on LeadingCompany.


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