Cultivating Charisma: How Personal Magnetism Can Help (Or Hurt) You At Work

Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, talks with Fast Company about why charisma is so critical to business and how special Jedi mind tricks can help get you there.

As a socially inept teenager, Olivia Fox Cabane realized that she had two choices. "Either confine myself to a desert island, or learn how to make this human thing work," she says. Cabane opted for the latter. Good thing. By age 24, the French-born author of The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, published on March 29, had addressed the United Nations. The following year she was lecturing at Harvard and MIT, a precursor to her career as an executive coach and keynote speaker. A self-professed science nerd, Cabane came up with the idea for a book on charisma after realizing there was no single resource to help individuals cultivate it. We spoke with Cabane about why charisma is so critical to business and how Jedi mind tricks (not the hip-hop group) can help get you there.

FAST COMPANY: So what is the myth of charisma and where did it come from? 

OLIVIA FOX CABANE: It came from the Greeks, who coined the word as "gift of grace." They believed it was a divine gift. The myth is that charisma is not innate. What scientists have actually discovered—like many other myths they busted this one—is it’s actually a social skill, which like many others is learned. But this happens so early in life that by the time these charismatics get to adulthood, it all seems to be natural. And yet if, for example, you analyze the progression of Steve Jobs from 1984 to 2011 you’ll see he painstakingly learned it step by step.

So where did we get the idea that one needs to be outgoing and gregarious to be charismatic?

A few things. First, people don’t realize that charisma is not monolithic. There’s no one form of charisma that is good or bad per se. There’s only the right form of charisma for the particular situation. Our Western culture glamorizes extroversion, and so the 50% of the population who are introverts feel defective and uncool. But you know what? Introversion is actually an asset for several forms of charisma.

For example? 

For "focus charisma," which creates a cocoon around people and gets them to share everything, introversion is actually a key, critical component because you need to completely focus your attention on a person and listen attentively.

What about the three other styles of charisma?

There’s "authority charisma," which is the most powerful form of charisma. It’s the one that will get people to listen and obey. However, authority charisma has several downsides, as do the others. With this one, though, it inhibits critical feedback and is a killer for brainstorming. It’s not one I’d recommend bringing into a company or to a team if you want them to be creative.

And Steve Jobs? His charisma was what you term the "visionary."

Exactly. This form of charisma is one that can make people feel inspired and want to follow you. It’s also great for invigorating brainstorming. But remember, there was a very different Steve Jobs in private. His public persona was very carefully crafted.

The other type of charisma is "kindness," which is what the Dalai Lama has. This encourages people to reveal their hearts and souls, which is wonderful and flattering. People start bending rules for you or pretending they don’t even exist, but it can also backfire because people start falling in love with you, not romantically. But they can get very hurt when they find that you don’t reciprocate.

Can you talk about the big advantages that make charisma so critical in business?

Charisma makes people want to want to trust and follow you. Imagine if you knew that the moment you entered the room people would want to know what you have to say. It causes people to have a personal sense of sacrifice and go above and beyond the call of duty to advance the leader’s mission. Employees of charismatic leaders also experience greater work satisfaction, greater personal commitment, and exhibit higher productivity. The companies with charismatic CEOs enjoy higher stock prices, and a charismatic CEO has a particularly strong effect during financial turmoil in raising funds for his or her company.

But charisma is not just for those in leadership roles.

It’s charisma that helps determine which ideas get adopted and how effectively your projects are implemented. For example, charisma is critical anytime you’re applying for a job. No matter what their position, charismatic people also receive higher performance ratings. They tend to enjoy higher salaries and get more promotions. And they’re viewed as more attractive by their superiors.

And this can all be backed up by science?

Indeed. For example, in controlled lab experiments it was discovered that people could lower and raise their level of charisma, like turning a dial. More specifically, the MIT media lab looked at how critical your body language is to your effectiveness. They were able to predict the outcomes of sales calls, negotiations, and business plan pitches with 87% accuracy not by listening to a single word of content, but by analyzing voice fluctuations and the facial expressions of the person pitching. Charisma is what enables one sales person to outsell the other five in his district combined. 

Can you talk a little more about the science of body language and its impact on charisma?

There are two critical things you need to know about body language. First, we can’t fake charismatic body language. Even when we control the main expression on our face, if what’s deeper inside is anti-charismatic, that will come out. That’s because, no matter how well we think we’re controlling our facial expression, micro-facial expressions will still appear. And even if they’re as short as 17-32 milliseconds, people will be able to detect them.

Secondly, you don’t control your body language consciously. Finally, you control your subconscious mind, which is why so much of this book is actually Jedi mind tricks, like doing visualizations. For example, one way to both feel and broadcast confidence is by imagining yourself puffing up like a big gorilla. Because of the way visuals hit our limbic brain faster than our cortex, it’s one technique that can get your body language instantly to a charismatic state. The secret is to get you into the right charismatic mind to teach you to get a charismatic brain so you then exhibit the right charismatic body language so that then you are charismatic.

You said we can’t fake charismatic body language, but can we fake charisma? Are there people who seem to be charismatic but really aren’t?

No. Either they’re charismatic or not. It’s that simple. And if they are charismatic, it’s because internally they’re doing the right Jedi mind tricks. Now they may be insincere at a deeper level, but in the moment, like all good megalomaniacs, they believe what it is they’re doing. Now I’m not saying charisma isn’t potentially dangerous. It is. Which is why the last section of my book is called "Use It Responsibly." This stuff is powerful and could have terribly disastrous effects.

For example?

You can get people to do whatever you want them to do. Think about that.

How is charisma useful in difficult business situations?

So charisma is perfect when you have to deal with a particularly difficult person and you have to win their trust and rebuild the relationship. You could turn on either focus or warmth charisma, which will enable you to establish an emotional bond with pretty much anyone.

You talk a lot about Bill Clinton. Why is he such a great example?

Because Clinton is one of the few figures who leads with warmth. Most other people lead with power or focus or they’re not charismatic at all. He has all three elements. He’s got presence. He’s fully focused on making you feel like you’re the only person in the room. He’s got power obviously; he’s a high-status individual. And he’s got warmth because that is what he broadcasts. That’s what makes him superstar charismatic.

And our current President?

He leads more with focus. He leads with intelligence. He doesn’t lead as much with warmth, which is one of the reasons he’s struggling a bit. People are less forgiving of him. Someone who leads with warmth will be forgiven for anything.

You offer many science-backed techniques, but won’t they appear contrived if a newbie tries to follow them?

That’s why first, we’re doing Jedi mind tricks. We’re going straight to the mind, so that you actually are sincere. I also always recommend practicing new things that might make you uncomfortable in low-stakes situations like the checkout counter of a grocery store. Don’t try something big or new in a high-stakes environment.

Do you find yourself constantly assessing others’ level of charisma, even when you’re off the clock, so to speak?

Not really. Because I like being off duty.

[Image: Flickr user Vernon Fowler]

 

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17 Comments

  • Kevin Schmelzlen

    Awesome reference to the Jedi Mind Tricks rap group, Arnie! And an interesting article besides that.

  • Charles H. Green

    Good piece on what's all too often a fluff subject, but without the faddish side tour into neuro-stuff. Useful, commonsensical, practical discussion.

  • la Demain

    Sorry, but this makes me laff. Ms. Cabane forgot that some people have highly-tuned con detectors. 

  • gigamo4dat

    All the stories and information given was very inspiring and feel motivated for more associations with the organization for a long properous affair where there are more positive effects to have him in this world than without him. 

  • walethia

    Thank you for validating what I know to be true.  I was terribly shy and insecure as a child and even as a adult.   My lack of social skills hurt me professionally as well as personally.  I've invested thousands of dollars in self  improvement programs and training.  I have experienced first hand the difference between being a charming person and a person people did not and would not follow.

    Since then I've created my Grace and Charm Success System, because charisma can be taught. I offer real life strategies that work.

  • Michael Martel

    I believe what you are talking about as far as charisma is also called "beingness."   There is really nothing magical about it.  It is being conscious of the energy you project, being present in the moment.  People respond to this.  When I consciously choose to be powerful, passionate, playful that is what I project.  There are a couple sayings about this - "fake it till you make it" or "be it till you see it."  Either way by choosing how we show up will attract people to us.

  • Yuliya Karnaukh

    first let me tell you that i've read this article from beginning to the end which hardly ever happens. so thank you for a really interesting content. i think i'll buy your book as well. on the other hand it's just such a Western mentality to believe that everything can be thought and everybody can learn and become something they are not. sure we can develop skills and learn behavioral models and try to follow them. but only if we are naturally capable of doing so. we are what mom and dad made us of and that's a truth of it.

  • singh seabiscuit

    Well,
    Well, Well!

    Finally
    an article and even a book on Personal Magnetism – a subject that has held me enthralled for over a half century. Have studied it pretty deeply but
    never got down to teaching or lecturing.

    For
    one, I aver that it can get you anything you want – am talking about
    security, financial or any other.. Then it gets you respect and
    confidence of friends and foes. Indeed success in most anything you want. Tall order?
    Believe me when I say - tried and tested.

    Secondly
    you got to know that it is not permanent – it comes and goes. Alexander and
    Ceasar were amongst the most magnetic men that ever walked the earth. Yet they
    were not always so – specially 
    when the former was drinking deep and the latter
    was philandering.

    Personal magnetism is therefore never permanent. It comes and goes. There are
    certain habits that invite it and others that repel it. There are the physical, mental and emotional aspects. Even diet matters as also moods and feelings.

    A
    vast subject – maybe should get down to writing a book - should time and temper permit   -:)

  • Raj Singh

    Anything that can help one to get more out of life be that having more friends or getting that amazing job should be taken on board before being discredited. The world is only getting more competitive. I read an article years ago about the difference of  approach between Obama and Clinton. Obama is the kind of person that if he seen you across the street would wait for you to come over and shake his hand whereas Clinton would cross the street shake your hand and make you feel great. 

  • singh seabiscuit

    Personal Magnetism is an essence, a quality, an endowment that comes and goes at will. It is held in check either by accidental habits or by proper training cum guidance in which both mind and heart play important parts.
    It is a quiet fire of the mind and heart and is a synonym for self control.

    Of course I could go on and on - no doubt  -:)

  • Jon Hansen

    Despite what you are suggesting with this article, according to research by Jim Collins and in particular referencing his book Good To Great, charismatic leaders are amongst the least effective in terms of sustainable corporate success.

    While Collins' work and findings are supported by actually data, your article is more anecdotal, which leads to an obvious question . . . why is there such an emphasis placed on charisma if at best the results or success is only short term?

  • Michael Brown

    Jon, I am not aware of the research you're referencing.  And perhaps the real-life example I am about to give constitutes an exception to the rule which your reference suggests. 

    But my former boss here at Ford Dealership Design , who is definately the most charasmatic leader I've ever met, left several years ago to head up the marketing department at Chrysler - spearheaded the hit SuperBowl commercial featuring Eminem with the "Imported From Detroit" tagline - and he is now President and CEO of Chrysler Brand, Chrysler Group, LLC and Head of Lancia.

  • serena

    I distinctly remember making that very same choice when I was 12: learn the social graces, or be ostracized for life. I do think my nerdy self still seeps into situations, mind you; and I think some people are born never having that awkwardness, for sure!

  • Stewart Thompson

    Totally agree!! We tried a bunch of different systems and
    we learned the hard way that DISC, MBTI, even wonderlic are absolute crap. On
    the recommendation of a friend we tried creammetrics.com and we've hired 3
    outstanding people in a row since September.

  • Scott Byorum

    You know, this is all fine and good, but this is the same "personality inventory" that has been rehashed over and over again for the past couple decades or more.  DISC anyone?  Do you have "Authority Charisma"?  Then you're probably a "Director."  Do you have "Introvert Charisma"?  Then you are probably a "Thinker" or a "Steady" or a "whatever-little-tweak-this-time-around-to-make-it-seem-new-and-different-from-the-rest."

    "You could turn on either focus or warmth charisma..."  That's right.  Download V12.5 of the personality inventory, "charisma" and turn off your "authority charisma" and turn on your "warmth charisma" so you can seem like a real human being and not a computating automoton.  Good grief.