There’s ongoing debate in the management world about the factors that contribute to making a great leader. However, in the midst of discussions that focus on technical expertise, communication skills and the ability to motivate staff, amongst others, the importance of charisma is often lost. So with this in mind, why is it such a crucial attribute for all leaders to possess?
As we’re all well aware, leadership is a difficult idea to define. John Adair, a British academic, believes that ‘Leadership, like all personal relations, always has something unknown, something mysterious about it.’ Indeed, it would be hard to deny that Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, for example, weren’t charismatic leaders, however their approaches varied significantly. Ultimately, leaders are expected to do just that – lead. And regardless of their style, very few individuals will buy into one who can’t inspire and motivate their people.
Charisma is, perhaps obviously, a key quality in this and at the most basic level, trying to engage and drive employees is considerably more difficult without this attribute to back it up. In fact, almost every facet of leadership is affected by charisma in one way or another. Delegating work and driving cost-cutting initiatives, for example, are both made easier if the individual is someone that people can buy into and respect, and this tends to be influenced by charisma.
The trait is particularly important for organisations going through periods of significant transformational change. Here, a leader will often have to ‘take the staff on a journey’ that could result in their roles being adapted or them having to take on additional responsibilities. The potential is there for employees to become uncomfortable or unsettled as the organisation that they knew changes around them and this is when it’s critical to have a charismatic leader in place. This means someone who can effectively communicate and guide employees into their new way of working, whilst still being able to lead the transformative process and maintain staff morale.
A factor that’s often not taken into account when considering the importance of installing a charismatic leader is that the head of an organisation is now much more closely tied to the company brand than might have been the case in the past. This means that appointing someone who can’t inspire the wider markets, and prospective investors, could potentially have significant knock-on effects for the business as a whole, particularly for publicly traded firms. As an example, do you think Virgin would be so successful if it wasn’t naturally tied to Richard Branson? Or would Apple have been able to sell masses of technology without Steve Jobs’ underlying charisma and the ability to secure the buy in of millions of people?
However, despite the fact that the word itself directly translates in Greek as ‘divine gift’, fear not – charisma can actually be taught and isn’t necessarily a skill that people simply have, or don’t have. Professor Philippe Jacquart, from leading European business school EMLYON, has researched the topic and says:
“People are often of the belief that it’s either something you have or not – but charismatic traits can be learned to a degree.
“Naturally charismatic people frame their arguments or presentations through the prism of storytelling; they use metaphors and pull the listener in to what they are saying. They also speak with real substance – they have a moral conviction about what they are saying which makes the listener believe in them.
“Finally, charismatic leaders deliver what they are saying in an animated way. They engage with who they are addressing and convey enthusiasm that makes people want to listen to them. All of these attributes can be learned by less charismatic individuals.”
Jacquart’s research also found that leaders who possess charisma tend to get away with considerably more than their, perhaps less inspiring, counterparts do:
“Charisma can be a very important attribute for a leader. If your results are good then it’s less necessary – but if performance is suffering, charisma can often buy you time,” which is surely a good enough reason to look to develop the trait.
Obviously, there are some things that possessing charisma simply won’t affect. Knowing when to make the crucial calls, or what direction to lead an organisation in, for example, are two areas where decision making will be impacted by experience and technical expertise. However, when it comes to affecting the work of staff or encouraging employees to go that extra mile, there really is no substitute for charisma.
Do you believe that charisma is a critical attribute for leaders to possess?